Monday, March 19, 2007



This powerful, beautiful, violent, tender, important, inspiring, depressing, awkward, elegant film of horror and hope will be shown at the New Directors / New Films festival at Lincoln Center and The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA).

War/Dance tells two stories, totally different in their nature. Both center around the same children.

One story has the children telling their horrific stories of atrocities in the Ugandan civil wars. It is truly wrenching what people do to each other. Here is a mini-primer of living in a war zone in Uganda.

The other shows their participation in a national music competition for all the elementary schools of Uganda. This provides a fascinating look at regional instruments and folk music and dancing.

The stories intersect over the difficulty the children -- from the war zone -- have in perfecting their performances and then traveling to the competition -- far to the south, in Kampala, the capital of Uganda.

The music story has the structure of every other competition film. For the war story, the children face and talk directly to the camera. Events from the past are reconstructed unconvincingly, and even events from the present seem to be at least partly staged. This is not a hidden camera, slice-of-actual-life documentary.

Each of the stories deserves its own audience. Each is extreme and exceptional in its own world.

However, it may be difficult for music lovers to bear the tragedy of the war story. Hopefully, students of African war politics will relax to enjoy the musical experience. For those with a deep interest in both, this is a film that tries to express the redemptive power of musical culture for the victims of the havoc of war.

The film is beautifully photographed, giving a stunning portrait of Uganda and Ugandans. The film makers' background is National Geographic documentary. This is the films greatest strength, greatest weakness, and the source of its greatest controversy. For they take it on faith that it is proper to tell the story of the children this way. Neutral. Just show the situation. Have the children do and show what happened. Given the violence that they have experienced, including the death of many parents, it is not necessarily clear that -- even if the children want to tell their story -- that it is good for them to do so, or that proper consent has been provided. Personally, I am always uncomfortable with films that put children -- even fictional characters -- in harm's way. (Of course, that was a major resason I could not enjoy, even if I could appreciate, Pan's Labyrinth.) I wonder what affect it may have on children: re-living real horrors -- especially since now the record is forever available, and could even be twisted to cause harm by some evil hand in a volatile area.

War/Dance won the directing prize at the Sundance Film Festival, has been picked up by
ThinkFilm, and will be show at New Directors/New Films. For those who appreciate both sides of this story, it is an important and powerful film.

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