Ugandan refugees take Filmfest focus |

Ugandan refugees take Filmfest focus

John ColsonAspen, CO Colorado
The documentary "War/Dance" shows Thursday at Aspen Filmfest. (Courtesy ThinkFilm Company)

ASPEN Sean Fine decided his wife and co-director, Andrea Nix Fine, should stay at home with their young child and not be exposed to the violence and mayhem of war-torn Uganda during the making of the documentary film “War/Dance.”Nonetheless, the young, award-winning filmmaker said in a telephone interview recently, her input was critical to the making of the film and to its ability to move audiences as they watch the students of a remote village school overcome current hardships and memories of horrible violence to compete in a national song and dance festival.The film, shot in 2005 and 2006, details the lives of several youngsters in the Patongo refugee camp school, all of whom come from villages destroyed by the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.Some of those featured in the film, as young as 5, have been kidnapped by the rebels and forced to become soldiers in the LRA’s decades-old war against the Northern Uganda government. It is estimated that as much as 80 percent of the Lord’s Resistance Army is made up of such abductees.Some have seen their parents killed, or seen their bodies immediately afterward, and their faces as they relate those memories are a study in determination and anxiety mingled together. The camp is home to 60,000 refugees, living in squalid conditions without electricity, running water or personal security.

“Kids were abducted while we were filming,” Sean Fine said, recalling that rebel forces often came near the camp despite the armed guards that patrol the grounds. A nearby swimming hole shown in one scene of the film, in which teenage boys jump in for a swim and almost immediately leap back to the shore and dash back to the camp, was the site of that abduction, Fine said.At one point, a rebel sympathizer in the camp invited Fine and his crew to meet with the rebels outside the camp, and to bring his equipment and cash, but Fine declined.He said the Patongo camp was chosen because it was competing in the annual Kampala Music Festival for the first time, and because it was home to such a desperate population of refugees.”There’s something about that place, it’s just a gut feeling, you know it’s sort of a magical place,” he said on a cell phone while riding in a car after a shoot on the East Coast.He learned of the camp, and of the fact that “people there had not had a chance to tell their story,” at the same time that he learned it was one of the most dangerous parts of the war zone and quite remote. That’s when he and Andrea decided he would have to go alone.”We decided to have two parents in a war zone probably wouldn’t be a good idea,” he noted mildly. But they talked regularly by satellite phone, and she helped him plan the scenes he would shoot and the methods he would use.

“It was really helpful, because it was a very stressful situation,” he recalled. “We pretty much act as one director. … That’s how we are as a team.”Beside the threat from the rebels, there were natural hazards as well. Fine contracted malaria during the filming, and he and his crew lived under the same harsh conditions that ruled the camp.It was Andrea, he said, who suggested that the teenagers he was filming should look directly into the camera, rather than trying to catch them in candid moments and do voiceovers or some other technique.Doing it that way, he said, opened the kids up to tell their stories because “they weren’t staring into another human’s eyes. It was like they were confessing. … They just talked and talked.”The film follows the children of the school as they begin to train for the competition, at first under the watchful eyes of their teachers at the school, and later under the tutelage of special trainers sent out from Kampala, the nation’s capital.A total of 56 schools compete, but the Patongo kids are the butt of jokes and ridicule because no one expects a school in the middle of a refugee camp to have a chance.

The viewer gets to watch the transformation of the children as they sing and dance through their rehearsal sessions, as their eyes light up and their shy, awkward mood shifts to that of an eager competitor. One 12-year old boy, Dominic, is the school’s virtuoso xylophone player, and he speaks of his dream to be the best xylophone player in all of Uganda.Other children shine, too. Rose, 12, is in the choir, and she relates memories of being forced to gaze on the brutal aftermath of her parents’ grisly murder. Nancy, 12, who kept herself and two younger siblings alive in the bush for more than a month after the Lord’s Resistance Army killed their father and abducted their mother, dreams of becoming a doctor.Driven by innate talent and a will to win, the troupe practices its dances and musical numbers endlessly, seeming to realize that this is its chance to produce something meaningful out of their shattered lives.There is tension in the film, both as the kids practice and then as they pile into aging vehicles for the hazardous trip to the capital city, and as the competition gets under way and they see the other, wealthier schools’ teams in action.”Win or lose, these children will show [the viewer] what true heart can achieve,” a website about the movie states – and it’s true.For the complete Aspen Filmfest program schedule, go to See the movie listings in this Arts & Entertainment section for Thursday’s screenings and show times.John Colson’s e-mail address is


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