After making its run in the festival market, including Sundance Film festival, and a limited release in theaters in November 2007, the Academy Award nominated documentary War/Dance has been spreading a powerful message on the simple ways that music can uplift the wariest of souls, in the most bleak situations.
Northern Uganda has been in a state of war for the past twenty years. The rebels are attacking the local villages, killing innocent people, and abducting children to become part of their army. Families are forced into refugee camps; unable to return to their homes they are forced to start a new life. In War/Dance there is hope amongst the turmoil and that lies with the children and the music they create.
The children’s school, Patongo, is able to compete for the first time in the National Music Competition in Kampala. Here the students participate in eight different categories of song and dance, including a traditional dance that is native to their tribe and an original composition. War/Dance beautifully intertwines three children’s stories and their relationship to the war and the music that inspires them during this turmoil.
Nancy is a fourteen-year-old dancer who has had to take care of her siblings since the death of her father and abduction of her mother. Crying to the camera, she recounts how scared she was the night that the rebels came for her mother. Resilient, she understands what she must do for her family and she turns to music and dance saying that when she dances “it feels like home.”
Dominic plays the xylophone with a passion that is tangible from the screen. He had been a child soldier for the rebels and has escaped to the camp where he lives with his mother and plays xylophone with the school. The stories he tells are the horrifying tales that cannot be avoided and should not go unnoticed, haunting after the film has finished.
Rose is a beautiful and strong thirteen-year-old that lives with her aunt because her parents were killed by the rebel forces. She looks into the camera with eyes that have seen some of the most gruesome aspects of war. Struggling to balance the work she must do for her family and music, she finds solace in music and dance.
This film is powerful in the way the directors have chosen to capture the children. Placed in front of the camera, they speak with an honesty and innocence that cannot be scripted. They are the ones that tell this story, opening and ending the film with narration from Dominic. This is their story and it needs to be told. Through the young eyes of these children, their stories are just some of the examples of what has happened to thousands like them.
When the children reach the competition, they are nervous and feel inferior to the schools from South Uganda. In the three days that they are in Kampala, some of the most touching moments come when they visit the city: seeing what city life is like, drinking soda, and watching airplanes. At the competition, we become more than just viewers of this film, but an audience to their performance that they have been working so hard for. We are rooting for them, to restore hope in these children.
War/Dance is a troubling and deeply moving documentary. Not only have the filmmakers captured something that needs to be documented, but they have weaved together a story of triumph and despair that leaves the audience in tears. Amidst this heavy despair the joy that comes across the children’s faces when they play, when they sing, and when they dance becomes more than just hope for the children, but it restores faith in the human spirit.
The documentary is distributed by Shine Global and can be purchased from their website.