Directing duo Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine‘s doc “War/Dance” is set against the backdrop of Uganda’s 20 year civil war during which over 30,000 children have been abducted by a rebel army. The Sundance ’07 film tells the story of Dominic, Rose, Nancy and their school in the Patongo Internally Displaced Persons camp as they take an historic journey to compete in Uganda’s national music and dance festival. “War/Dance” earned the couple the Directing Award at Sundance in January as well as the audience prize for best doc at the Wisconsin Film Festival. The Fines chatted with iW via email giving combined answers. ThinkFilm opens the film in limited release beginning Friday, November 9.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
We both were attracted to filmmaking for the same reason — film has such a power to move people. We can’t think of any other artistic medium that combines so many elements of the arts and can touch people deeply and emotionally. When we see a film that combines beautiful cinematography, amazing editing and a fluid story structure that it creates something almost tactile, it moves us beyond words. That type of film sticks with us and we can’t stop thinking about it.
It’s an amazing feeling and what we love about going to the movies. Now if you take that power and apply it to documentary filmmaking you have an incredible tool for change. As our careers have evolved, our desire to make films on this level has evolved too. We are constantly trying to push our skills and try new things. During the making of our last film, “War/Dance” we explored creative new ground and we hope to keep taking risks in our future films because risks also make great films.
How did the idea for “War/Dance” come about?
The inspiration for “War/Dance” came from an opportunity to shed light on a horrific situation. When we received a call from a non profit organization, Shine Global, about making a film to raise awareness about one of the world’s worst child soldier situations in northern Uganda, our initial response was ‘what child soldier situation in Uganda?’ After looking into the subject, we could not believe that we had not heard about this civil war and that it was not plastered over the front pages of every newspaper in the country. A 20-year-old war where rebels have abducted over 30,000 children that wasn’t making news — we just could not believe it. We wanted to put faces, names and stories to these horrible statistics.
We decided that the best way to do this was to shoot a film told entirely by those who suffered the most in this war, the children. No experts, no adults, just the children telling their own stories. Once in the field, it became quickly apparent that this was much more than a film about the traumas of war, but a film about hope and the healing power of music and dance. The children we were meeting were so resilient and strong that we felt their stories were bigger than life. We put all our effort and skill to make a film with impact which would do justice to the epic nature of the children’s stories.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…
Our approach to making “War/Dance” was to distill the history, facts and background as much as we could so we could focus on telling a truly human story in the kids’ own voices. Children are the hardest hit victims of Uganda’s 20 year civil war and we wanted to have them tell their story without putting it through the filter of policy experts, adults, or any Western character’s experience. We wanted to establish as direct a line of communication with the audience as possible. When the kids address the viewer directly, it is arresting and a bit uncomfortable since we are not accustomed to hearing from these voices.
The audience can not turn away when they are addressed directly like this. We also wanted to tell a story of hope in the face of struggle. We wanted audiences to see the children of Uganda as much more than victims of war, but as chilrden with immense hopes and dreams capable of achieving, as one of the kids says “great things.” We also felt that the children’s stories in the film are epic in nature so we set out to put as much effort into telling their stories in the most cinematic way possible. We shot the entire film on HD and tried to have each shot feel as visually powerful as their stories.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
There are a lot of challenges when trying to make a film like this. On the one hand you have the danger element of filming in a war zone with a three to four person crew — unmonitored ever-present rebel activity ranging from abduction to bloody ambushes. And when you also add the health risk of living in one of the most [isolated] refugee camps in Uganda — a place where were overcrowding has led to dysentery, cholera and malaria that take a 1,000 lives per week. And on the other hand we faced the challenge of telling the story of the effects of war on children in an entirely new way.
To achieve the level of intimacy needed, we decided to live in the camp during the entire production, which went against military law in northern Uganda. We had to live in Patongo displacement camp so the people, and more importantly, the children in the film could get to know us. We wanted the children to feel comfortable with us and safe. To make the children’s stories most powerful, we wanted a very direct line of communication between the children and the audience — from interviews where the kids are looking directly into the lens to having the camera only feet away during some of their most emotional moments. We wanted the film to touch people, to bridge the distance between the audience and our characters, people they initially think they have nothing in common with. To us human connection is the most powerful tool to evoke change.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
There are many aspects of filmmaking that we still want to explore. Right now we are developing a fictional feature that we are very excited about. We are also starting to explore commercial work, music video work and a possible animation project. We want to always push our creativity in terms of storytelling. But our heart very much lives in documentaries, and we want to keep pushing the envelope here too.
What are some of your all-time favorite films?
“Apocalypse Now,” “Blade Runner” (Andrea), “The Fog of War,” “A Brief History of Time,” “Hoop Dreams,” “Thin Red Line,” “Thin Blue Line,” “The Piano,” Michael Apted’s “7 UP” series, All of Michael Mann’s movies (Sean), “Paris, Texas,” “The Year of Living Dangerously,” “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Black Hawk Down”
What are some of your recent favorite films?
“Babel,” City of God” (we have two boys under the age of three…)
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of…
Simultaneously being married, being able to work together and raising two kids feels like a huge achievement. Plus winning the Directing Award at Sundance last year felt pretty good too.