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Agony and Ecstasy

War/Dance shows suffering and success in war-torn Uganda

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The Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) has been terrorizing the people of northern Uganda and southern Sudan since 1987. Many citizens of this region have become refugees in their own country. Ninety percent of the Acholi Tribe have had to leave their ancestral homes and live in government-protected camps, and 30,000 Acholi children have been abducted by the rebel army and forced to become child soldiers. An estimated 200,000 Acholi children have been orphaned by the war.

The War Zone Displacement Camp at Potonga, Uganda, is the location of the story depicted in the documentary film War/Dance. The camp has a population of over 50,000 displaced Acholi people who are no longer able to live in their villages and farm their land due to the threat from the rebels.

War/Dance focuses on the lives and stories of three children: Rose, Nancy and Dominic. Like other Acholi children who have been brutalized by the war, these three seem much older than their stated ages and far too serious for children of any age. Even as young as they are, they have witnessed more horrors and suffered more tragedies than most individuals do in a lifetime. Their stories, told in their own words, alternate with the story of the children in the camp preparing for the annual music festival competition held at the National Theatre of Uganda in the capital city of Kampala.

Written and directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, War/Dance was nominated for the Grand Jury Prize and won the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival. It also won the Haskell Wexler Award for Best Cinematography at the Woodstock Film Festival, and Sean Fine won the Best Cinematographer Award at the Jackson Hole Film festival. War/Dance was also nominated for the Best Documentary Academy Award. These nominations and awards are well deserved. War/Dance is a colorful and beautiful film, a visual treat.

In this film Uganda looks like a paradise. It's hard to believe that such evil can lurk there until the viewer listens to the stories of the children and watches the tears glide down their faces as they report the horrors they've witnessed and experienced. Instead of re-enacting scenes of violence for the cameras to tell this important story, the filmmakers have used creative images and sounds from nature to effectively convey the horror that these children have experienced. War/Dance is a grim reminder that children who have to try to survive in a war zone have a much different experience than that of adults who finance and support the war from far away.

The music in War/Dance is as impressive as the cinematography. Music is a vital part of the culture of the Acholi people, and for the children who have been brutalized by the war, making music and dancing is an indispensible part of their healing. "In our daily lives there must be music," one child says. Another says that music is the most important part of the Acholi culture.

Their musical instruments are crude, wooden and homemade, but they accomplish the same goals more-expensive instruments would. The talent is in their commitment and the work they do to try to be better musicians and dancers. They have to travel for two days across dusty roads with an armed escort, standing on the back of an open truck, but that's a small price to pay for the privilege of participating in this music festival.

There is much at stake in the competition. In addition to being war refugees, the people of the camp are also discriminated against by citizens from other parts of Uganda. They face disdain and contempt from other Ugandans, as if being war victims might be contagious and their sufferings infect other parts of Uganda. A good showing at the competition would provide some respect and empower the Acholi people with pride and self-esteem.

"Since the day we were born, we've heard gunshots," one child says. Another, anticipating visiting Kampala for the music competition, says, "I'm excited to see what peace looks like." Many of these children have lived in a war zone all their lives and their stories are both heartbreaking and uplifting. The Fines are experienced filmmakers with numerous documentaries to their credit, and their skill and expertise is evident in this captivating film.

War/Dance screens Sunday, March 2, as fundraiser for TVCTV, 7:30 p.m., $11. The Flicks, 646 Fulton St., 208-342-4222, TheFlicksBoise.com.