Most of us who have grown up in America have a difficult time wrapping our minds around what it's like to live in a place where every day is a struggle between life and death, with death coming out on the winning side more often than not. If we lose power for a few days, or even a week or more, as happened in my neighborhood last year when a massive windstorm hit Seattle, we panic if the store runs out of firelogs and flashlights, and start to get testy after a few days without a hot shower.
For the children of the Acholi tribe living in Patonga Refugee Camp in war-torn northern Uganda, life as we know it is simply incomprensible. Most of them have never seen electricity, or running water, much less things like television and fast food, and have seen more death in their short lifetimes than we can imagine. Most of the kids of Patonga Camp have lost one or both parents to the violence that's been wreaked upon the Acholi by the rebel Lord's Resistance Army, which has slaughtered, mutilated, raped and abducted the Acholi since its inception in 1987. Since 1996, tens of thousands of Acholi have been forced by the government to abandon their ancestral lands and live in "protected villages" – overcrowded, unsanitary refugee camps which, in spite of the protection of armed government forces, are still routinely attacked by the LRA.
War/Dance, directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix-Fine (who won a well-deserved directing award at Sundance for this film) take us into Patonga Camp, the most remote and desolate of the protected villages, to show us the story of a group of children living in the camp who have been invited to participate in the national music and dance competition at Kampala, the nation's capitol. This is the first time Patonga Grammar school has ever won the regional competition and been invited to Kampala -- an invitation that is considered a high honor. To win at Kampala is to bring pride and recognition to your tribe, something the Acholi people desperately need after two decades of war and terrorism. We watch events unfold mainly from the perspectives of three of the children of Patonga Grammar: Rose, an orphan, who lives with her abusive aunt and is forced to do most of the work of caring for the family's children; Nancy, whose father was chopped to death with machetes when she was just nine, and who must now care for her younger siblings while her mother works far away from Patonga; and Dominic, who at the age of nine was abducted from the camp with his older brother and forced to serve as a child soldier, before he ran away and made it back to the camp.
When the children tell the horror stories of war, their eyes seem dead, their expressions vacant. But when they sing and dance as they rehearse for Kampala, they come alive, and the joy on their faces at those times is a marked contrast to the same children talking about war and death. Dominic plays the xylophone, and daily he practices, hoping to achieve his goal of being the best xylophone player in all Uganda. Playing the xylophone, he says, makes him forget about the horrible things he has seen and makes life seem better for awhile.
We journey with the children and their teachers from Patonga Camp to Kampala – an arduous two-day journey in an open truck accompanied by armed guards; they have to drive fast out of fear that the rebels might attack and abduct the children. When they arrive at Kampala, the children face new obstacles: the prejudice of the tribes of southern Uganda, who see themselves as superior to the Acholi and call the children terrorists and murderers, and their first exposure to a large city with electricity, running water and heavy traffic. As the children rise to the challenge and compete in eight categories over a three-day period, we go along for the ride, cheering for them and hoping they do well, after all they've been through to get there.
War/Dance is a beautifully shot and directed film. The directors give us enough information about these kids and what they've been through to make us really care what happens to them, but the real heroes of the film are, of course, the children themselves. I can't imagine anyone could watch War/Dance without feeling heart-wrenched over these kids' stories and being touched by their heart and courage. War/Dance is an Oscar-caliber documentary, and it's slated for a November 2007 release date by THINKfilm; look for it to show up at least on the Oscar short-list next year, and very likely to end up with a nomination. This is what documentary filmmaking is all about.