War/Dance screens in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

War/Dance screens in Aspen

Stewart OksenhornAspen, CO Colorado
War/Dance follows a group of northern Ugandan children rehearsing for a national music and dance competition. Most have survived unimaginable terrors related to their regions civil war, including the murders of their parents, their own abductions and induction into the the army, and their marginal existence in a government refugee camp. (ThinkFilm)

ASPEN War/Dance, a documentary about children living in a refugee camp in Uganda, is a wonderful achievement from a technical perspective. The film, which earned the Directing Award at the Sundance Film Festival for the husband-and-wife team of Sean Fine and Andrea Nix and several cinematography awards for Fine, has an unusually dramatic feel for a documentary shot on location in a remote corner of the world. When the children of the camp participate in a music and dance festival in the capital city of Kampala, the competition is captured up close, from multiple angles, conveying the beauty and intensity of the young musicians and dancers.The question I had for Fine was, how did he get such an obviously big crew with a presumably small budget, and in such a tough location for filming?Well, if you consider two people a big crew, said Fine, by phone from his home in Maryland. It was a monster effort by our crew which was me, and my sound man.Fine conceded that, for the festival sequences, the crew expanded to two cameras and two sound men. And his tale of a two-man crew at the Patongo refugee camp was an exaggeration; he and his sound man were joined by an unarmed security advisor, whose job was to extricate them from any threatening situation.You dont go to Uganda with a huge crew, a big budget, said Fine. Im doing the same thing that any documentary crew is doing. But Andrea and I, we like films that look like films. We like art. We dont want to think, OK, because its a documentary it shouldnt look good.More crucial to the success of War/Dance than its look is the story it tells. The film is about the horror of Ugandas civil war, in particular its impact on children, who had their parents taken away or killed in front of their eyes. The films emotional impact is balanced by the preparations for the National Music Competition, where the children hope to prove their worthiness not just as performers, but as human beings to the rest of the country. While the children relate the painful details of their pasts and sometimes, their stories unfold right in front of the camera they are also devoting themselves to music and dance, which is a source of joy and escape, and also a means to connect to the traditions of their tribe.In unfolding the story, Fine and Nix had something more crucial than cameras and crew members. They had time time to familiarize themselves with the children, time to earn their trust and set the stage for intimate, revealing moments. Some interviews spanned up to six days.

We dont show up with cameras ablazing, said Fine, who typically has Nix on location with him, but on this occasion worked with her from across an ocean, as Nix stayed in Maryland to care for their infant son. We talk to the kids and their parents, and get to know them. People have this misconception that white people show up and the Africans are eager to tell their stories. But theyre not. Theyre just like us. They have questions. But they came to a consensus that this was important, to get their stories out there. For us to say, we want to hear your stories, they thought, we have a chance to tell people in the world what is going on.Time was a key element in one of the most powerful moments in War/Dance. Dominic, one of three kids from the Acholi tribe the film focuses on, says that he killed three people when he was a child soldier. It was while speaking to the camera, says Fine, that Dominic first told this story. Rather than milk the moment, Fine turned off his camera to spend time with Dominic.I asked him if he knew what the impact would be. I said people, your mom, are going to know youve killed people, said Fine. He felt like it was doing good, to share his story. He said this was the most honorable way to tell the story.Fine and Nix were introduced to the Patongo camp and its residents through another husband-and-wife filmmaking team, Albie Hecht and Susan MacLaury. Hecht and MacLaury run a nonprofit organization, Shine Global, that seeks to use documentary film projects to end child abuse. The two approached Fine and Nix about the situation in Uganda.Our response was, What war? said Fine. So we checked it out on the Internet. We were ashamed we did not know what was going on. Were documentary filmmakers, wed been all over the world. And we were appalled. This had been going on for 20 years. We wanted to make this film and have it make an impact not have people think of it as one more African incident.To get to the core of the story, Fine and Nix opted to leave out statistics, politicians and aid organizations. The focus is entirely on the children themselves, and the filmmakers came up with an effective means for letting them communicate their story.We started with the traditional way, of having the kids look to the side. They wouldnt talk, said Fine. Andrea suggested having them look right at the camera. That opened the floodgates. They just kept talking and talking.They knew they were talking to a lot of people. That unlocked something in them. They felt really comfortable.

As stunningly sad as the stories are, War/Dance is as much about the release of the childrens torment. Fines initial two-week visit to Uganda was spent looking for an angle into the story of the countrys civil war, which had endured for two decades. When he heard about the National Music Competition, in which all Ugandas schools participate, he suspected he had found his way into the story. However, many of the schools in the north, where the rebel armies had done the most damage, had been burned down, and Fine was about to give up. Then he heard about the Patongo camp. A translator told him he would be crazy to go there to film. When a documentary filmmaker hears youre not supposed to do something, you want to do it, he said. I pulled up, heard them, saw them dancing.War/Dance unlocks a truth about music and dance in Africa, how it is so much a part of their identity. The dances practiced are not for entertainment, but for telling the history of the Acholi tribe.Music to the Acholi people, especially the kids, its so intertwined with who they are, their tribe, said Fine. When they dance, theyre like channeling their whole tribes history.The dancing and singing take their pain away. It takes them to another place, to the life they should be living, a life without war. Ive never seen people practice so hard, because it means so much to them. They want to prove to the other schools that theyre not all child soldiers.Barely utilizing statistics or experts, War/Dance speaks of the tragedy in Uganda in a way that makes sense to an audience half a world away.I dont like films that are distant, far away, said Fine. Close-up is what I like. We want people to feel that they are right next to these kids.With dancing, I knew I had to be close to them. Because this film is about faces. Because faces are about emotion.War/Dance, a benefit for the African Medical & Research Foundation, shows at 7:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 4 at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.stewart@aspentimes.com

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