Focusing on Uganda's Tango of Beauty & Brutality

The documentary
The documentary "War/Dance" pairs artistic effects with the solemn stories of war-scarred children. (Thinkfilm)
By Nelson Pressley
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Filmmaker Sean Fine bristles at the suggestion that his strikingly handsome new documentary, "War/Dance," is too pretty to tell a gritty story.

"I'm sick of hearing when something looks beautiful it can't be real," Fine offers, broaching the subject himself, "and tired of seeing documentaries that look bad."

"War/Dance," which Fine shot and co-directed with his wife, Andrea Nix Fine, certainly looks great, even as it deals movingly with the lives of displaced kids in northern Uganda. A low-grade war has been simmering there for 20 years, with children often being conscripted by a rebel group known as the Lord's Resistance Army.

This was news to the Fines, documentarians with significant international experience, who met while working at National Geographic and in 2003 married and formed their own film company. The issue struck a chord with them in part because they had just had their first child; they now have two, both napping in the next room as the Fines talk in their Chevy Chase home.

What they learned was that the Patongo refugee camp is populated by roughly 60,000 people who have been displaced by the conflict. Like the more conspicuously activist "Darfur Now," "War/Dance" finds an upbeat way of looking at a grim, seemingly intractable African dilemma, in this case by watching Patongo camp schoolkids prepare to compete in the country's prestigious annual music and dance competition.

Not that regional Ugandan politics are the focus of the film, which opens Friday, and which is mostly told through three children in the Patongo refugee camp. The kids -- Nancy, Rose and Dominic -- often relate their stories directly to the camera, creating yet another aesthetic hot-button issue for the film.

"We wanted to push the envelope of documentaries," Sean says. In doing so, the filmmakers received the documentary directing award at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. They also received complaints from critics that the film's visual achievement distracted from its serious source material. A few days after the Fines sat for this interview, Stephen Holden wrote in the New York Times, " 'War/Dance' . . . has the polish of a richly hued, impeccably composed illustration. You wonder why the filmmakers felt obliged to shoehorn so many pretty sunsets into the film, which appears to be admiring itself in a mirror."

"It's a gift to be there," says Sean, who filmed in Uganda while Andrea contributed from home. (They put the film together in their basement studio.) "But we have a talent, and we damn well better put all our craft into it."

Some of the film's technique was a product of plain dumb luck. Sean had planned on interviewing the kids the traditional way, conversationally, with the camera observing neutrally from the side. But the kids were shy, and seemed to relax only when they could tell their detailed, often harrowing stories of terror and murder directly into the camera.

"The floodgates opened," says Sean. Because everyone in the Patongo camp had been through similar things, "no one asked them before. People don't ask you what happened, or how do you feel. And they just kept talking and talking."

He argued on the phone about it with his wife, who supported the approach even as he worried that it would look "contrived." (Indeed, critics have lodged reservations on those grounds.) "But Andrea said, 'When a kid is looking at you, you can't turn away.' "

In the film, Dominic -- whose skill on a rudimentary wooden xylophone is mesmerizing -- tells an especially wrenching tale of being conscripted by rebels as a child soldier and the atrocities he was forced to commit. But the emotional flash point comes when Nancy is taken to her father's grave with her mother, triggering a long meltdown from the heretofore composed 14-year-old.

That, the cinematographer says, was his genuine angel/devil moment. "I know when to put the camera down, and we know when not to push it," Sean says, but that day gave him pause. His wife says that when he called home that night, "that was the most rattled I've ever heard Sean on a film. We talked a lot about it [whether to use the footage], but at the end of the day, they are such survivors. If you don't know they grieve this way, do you send a message that they get used to it?"

Naturally, by now the filmmakers have opinions on a political situation that they say the American press has not been on top of and that they describe as mystifying yet fixable. ("War/Dance," mostly financed by Shine Global, a nonprofit children's interest group, is doing its bit to help by donating a portion of the proceeds to nongovernmental organizations working for kids in the region.) But they believe highlighting those politics in the movie would have played into the usual dynamic, rendering the problem wonky and abstract while reinforcing notions that so many Africans live in perpetual conflict and ineffable squalor.

Not so, says the film in image after image. And any concerns that the picture is almost soothingly lovely Andrea labels as "patronizing."

The Acholi homeland "is an Eden," Sean adds. "But they can't access the way they want to live."

And it's not as if the kids necessarily dream of fleeing or being adopted into the mythical idyllic West. Sean says: "Some people ask us, 'Can I adopt those kids? I'm sure they want to leave.' And actually, they don't. I asked Dominic, 'Do you want to travel around the world? Do you think you'd want to just leave and go to the United States?' He said, 'I want to visit, but I want to come back. This is my home. This is my land. I love this place.' "

© 2007 The Washington Post Company