So, on a scale of one to 10, rate your awareness of the turmoil in Uganda pre-The Last King of Scotland. (One being you had no idea, and 10 being you wrote The Last King of Scotland.) Go on, spill it, you can trust me — I obviously wasn’t ‘10’.
Last year’s Academy Award-nominated documentary War/Dance takes us back to the horrific scene in present day, where a group of primary-school students are preparing to compete in their nation’s music festival. They are refugees of the Acholi tribe of northern Uganda; 50 families live in Patongo, a camp intended for five. No one expects them to stand a chance.
The story that filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine craft is an underdog tale, sure, but on a more profound level it is about a quest to recreate identity. Rose, Dominic, and Nancy — the 13 and 14-year-old children who are War/Dance’s primary voices — have, like a large percentage of their tribe, been terrorized by the rebels known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. Their families have been broken by murder and kidnapping; they’ve had to abandon their ancestral homes; they’ve even been forced to kill. If the meaning of life is to strive, then these children are most certainly embracing that meaning: The sublime artistry they will bring to the competition is not only a goal they can strive for, but a vehicle to transform themselves from victims to victors in their own eyes and the eyes of others.
War/Dance is beautifully, often symmetrically photographed by Mr. Fine, who captures the opalescent skin of his subjects and the supernatural colors of the environment they inhabit, creating tension between the petrifying violence described by the children and the surreal loveliness of northern Uganda.
Footage of the music competition itself appears late in War/Dance, and I wish that the Fines had included a start-to-finish frontal shot of the much-hyped “traditional dance” performance (Mr. Fine is often right in the action, it seems). Nevertheless the construction of the scene is adequate as a buildup to the awards ceremony. I won’t give anything away, but on a scale of one to 10 of tears shed, well I found myself tipping towards the double-digits.