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War Dance

Directors shine a light on the musical talents of Ugandan students amid war and poverty.

By Karen Stiller

War Dance
Directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix
(Rogues Harbor Studios)

Patongo Primary School is located in a camp for internally displaced people in Uganda’s dangerous north, where rebels rule and abductions, child soldiers and murder are facts of life. So when the students of Patongo decide to compete in a national music competition, and their efforts to prepare are filmed, the resulting documentary is powerful, moving and sometimes horrifying.

War Dance focuses on three young people, Dominic, Rose and Nancy, and tells their stories against the backdrop of music rehearsals and an achingly beautiful countryside. All three have demons to bear; they have seen and survived horrific events in their troubled country, but bravely and quietly relive their memories.

Dominic was a child soldier. He uses the camera as confessional to tell, for the first time, the truth of some of what he had to do to survive life as a young warrior. Rose is an orphan cared for by a nagging aunt who threatens to beat her if she doesn’t work. The cameras follow Nancy as she visits her father’s grave for the first time since his murder and wails in sorrow in the arms of her mother.

I think there should be a law against filming children as they claw at the dirt of a parent’s grave. We already knew Nancy’s father had been murdered. To see her torment at the site feels gratuitous. I hope the directors — nominated for best documentary at the 2008 Oscars and winners of the best director prize at the Sundance Film Festival — at least grappled with their decision to set up and film that particular scene.

Even though the children’s lives are overwhelmingly sad, the directors also show their excitement as they prepare for the competition in Kampala. When the kids arrive in the city and file off their packed truck, intimidation fills their eyes as they encounter kids from the south who appear to be more polished and better practised. It made me cheer them on even more. And it reminded me that kids are kids everywhere, but music is far more than just music. For these kids, music is joy, life and freedom. And for that reason alone, this documentary is well worth watching.

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