War/Dance: The Children Who Danced Away from War
A review by Gar Smith / The-Edge
February 12, 2008

Dominic hovers over his home-made marimba. His past is clouded but his future may be bright.
If you had to describe "War/Dance" in a phrase (the classic elevator pitch), it might be: "Hotel Rwanda" meets "Mad Hot Ballroom."

This unforgettable Sundance Award-winning documentary by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix tells the unlikely story of a band of war-damaged children who briefly escape the confines of their refugee camp in northern Uganda in a bid for national stardom. It was featured in the United Nations Film Festival and distributed in limited release in a few US cities late last year. It deserves a much wider audience.

The film has all the virtues of a major studio release -- spectacular, award-winning cinematography, a story that seems scripted by an Oscar-worthy screenwriter and luminous performances by children that will leave you smiling and weeping long after you've left the theater. But these are real children (many of whom lost parents and siblings to the ongoing war) and the stakes are real as they train against all odds to compete against 20,000 other schools in the national dance and choral competition in Kampala.

I know in my heart that I am more than a child of war, one young girl tells the camera. And a gifted young musician defiantly vows: We will show them that we are giants.

The filmmakers float through the cramped cabins and dirt streets of the camp like curious ghosts, capturing scenes of astonishing emotional impact. Even in the midst of a wild dance routine or in a bouncing truck filled with apprehensive children making their first trip from the bush to a city, the filmmakers never cast a shadow. Their cameras absorb the raw beauty of the land and uncover buried secrets in the faces of the children.

In one scene, a group of children is shown chatting and laughing innocently in the sun. Suddenly, tears streak down the cheek of one of the young girls. For some of these children, terrible memories are only moments away.

The film profiles three children -- Dominic, Nancy and Rose -- all residents of the Patongo Internally Displaced Persons Camp. Each will leave an indelible imprint.

The children of the Acholi refugee camp, transformed by their artistry, take the trophy in Kampala.
Dominic, a confident, smiling marimba player, who was kidnapped by the rebels, obliquely mentions how, during his captivity, he was forced to "do some things that I have never told anyone about." Before the film is over, Dominic will share his secret with the filmmakers. Fair warning: it is something that no one, least of all a child, should have to live with.

In a series of stunning vignettes, the filmmakers help the children confront their worst terrors as, one by one, they return to scenes of unspeakable crimes. In each case, we watch from behind as Dominic, Nancy, and Rose walk slowly into fields or buildings haunted by life-shattering events. And we hear their stories as they stare at the camera with wide and wounded eyes.

When Dominic was captured by the rebels, they also took his older brother. Only Dominic escaped. When he hears that government troops have captured a rebel leader, he walks to the government compound and asks if he can speak to the captive. Surprisingly, the Ugandan officers agree and soon Dominic and the rebel are sitting side by side on a wooden bench. The camera records their encounter as the little boy quietly asks the burly fighter if his brother is still alive. Dominic demands to know why the rebels kidnap children and the warrior struggles uncomfortably to provide an answer.

But the wounds of war are only part of the story. The greater part of the film celebrates the unquenchable spirit of the children and the adults who believe in them. With the help of their teacher and two gifted performers from Kampala who volunteer to tutor the ragamuffins, it begins to look as if the refugees might actually have a shot at celebrity in the competition.

I won't give away the ending except to say that, as in "Red Hot Ballroom," there is both joy and heartbreak. But I can guarantee that you will fall in love with these amazing children. This film will grab you by the heart.

The film opens Friday December 14 at the Landmark Shattuck theaters for a one-week run. A scholarship fund has been created to help the children. For more information on how to held, visit www.AMREF.org, and www.wardancethemovie.com.

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