December 20, 2007

REVIEW: War Dance (A)

Background: I would be remiss here if I didn't first recognize the work of my friends at Invisible Children in raising awareness of the plight of the Acholi people in Northern Uganda. One of IC's earliest supporters was Okot Jolly Grace, who is currently their country director in Uganda and is also one of the heroes of this film. War Dance was directed and filmed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, a married couple with primarily TV documentary experience, including National Geographic specials. They won the Documentary Directing Award at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival for their work on War Dance.

Synopsis: We meet three pre-adolescent children living in the Patongo internally displaced camp in Northern Uganda, victims of the 20+ year bloody war between rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) and Ugandan government troops. Rose had to identify her parents' heads as they were pulled from a boiling pot. Nancy's mother had to bury the chopped pieces of Nancy's father. Dominic was abducted by the LRA and forced to kill innocent members of his own tribe, the Acholi. All three of them are now members of the camp's song and dance troupe that is preparing for the National Music Festival in Kampala. Jolly and her teaching counterpart (I missed his name) train the group in choral, instrumental, and dance performances. Soon enough it's time for the two day journey to Kampala, where we're witness to a Mad Hot Ballroom-like competition between Ugandan primary schools. The Patongo children are the underdogs to say the least, but they end up returning to their camp as the heroes of their generation. And I return to the restroom to mop up the tears spewing from my face.

I Loved:
+ Seeing Rose, Nancy, and Dominic smile.
+ The early rehearsal scenes.
+ The stunning digital cinematography - some of the best you're likely to see in a documentary.
+ The last line, spoken by Dominic.

I Liked:
+ The final dance performance and truly exhilarating award ceremony.
+ The great soundtrack featuring Ugandan musical artists.
+ The discussion between Dominic and the LRA soldier.

I Disliked:
- Some of the awkwardly staged scene recreations. They were jarring and emotionally effective but seemed a little too visually stylish, like when Nancy is brushing her hands through the high grass like Russell Crowe in Gladiator.

I Hated:
- Knowing that few people are likely to see this. (Standing in line) "Learn something about humanity that will better my life? Nah, let's go see Alien vs. Predator - Requiem. Oh, it's sold out? Shoulda known. How 'bout Wild Hogs?"

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 9
Emotional Impact - 10!
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 29/30= 97% = A

Last Word: What an inspiring story. It's times like this that I'm extremely grateful to live in a film market with three Landmark Theatres and numerous independent theaters. What do you go see at the theater in Louisville? I shudder to think. Anyway, War Dance is one of the best documentaries - and overall films - of the year, and I highly recommend it. Much of the criticism I've seen of it focuses on its visual style, which I concede above, as the cinematography was occasionally distracting. It almost looks too good, which is probably why people think they were focusing more on the scenery than the story. At the same time, however, the camera shows the beauty of an Africa that few people will ever see, especially those who have only seen Blood Diamond or Tears of the Sun. Visuals aside, there's no getting around the power of this story and the pain and joy you experience in watching Rose, Nancy, Dominic and the others release their unimaginable emotions through song and dance. While packing for the trip to Kampala, Nancy poignantly (and chillingly) says, "I'm excited to see what peace looks like." Quite a different world she and millions of others live in each day. One more thing I want to address is the criticism that the Fines are naive in thinking a trophy will solve all of the Acholi's problems. That's ridiculous. The strongest emotions I felt were not in simply watching the performances, but in thinking about the devastating complexity of the entire situation - not joy that they won something, but anger that they had to win something. Use War Dance as evidence that humans are wicked or that they are angelic, but don't so easily dismiss it as a "pandering" Christian Children's Fund ad. If you think the scenes were scripted and the kids weren't able to say what they did on their own, you're doing them a disservice. Oh, one last note: ThinkFilm is officially still the bomb.

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