The frequent documentary template when dealing with suffering children in Africa is to choose those lucky enough to escape, often to the United States, and tell their fish-out-of-water stories ("Lost Boys of Sudan" and "God Grew Tired Of Us" follow this recipe). Husband-and-wife documentary team Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, making their Sundance debut with the stunning and heartwarming "War Dance," are committed to a truer African tale and the difference makes their film a notch above the rest.
War sums up life for the people of Northern Uganda as rebel forces known as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) battle government soldiers. Children in rural communities find themselves on the front lines. Their parents are often killed. LRA soldiers kidnap them to fill their ranks of fighters. There is no limit to the number of tragic Ugandan stories but the Fines tell the story of Dominic, Rose and Nancy, three children living in a displaced persons camp in Patongo. The dramatic turn when "War/Dance" turns from despair to uplifting hope, is when the trio's school is invited to compete in an annual music and dance festival in their nation's distant capital.
Nancy, a teenage girl living under the care of a cruel Auntie, shines brightest out of "War Dance's" three child heroes. Yet, all of them, especially when facing he camera and retelling their horrific pasts, make instant connections.
The best moments belong to the schoolroom practices, where the students hone their singing, musical performances and elaborate dancing. It's as if the Fines reach back to the Golden Hollywood tradition of Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musicals. Yes, "War Dance" is a message documentary in the truest sense. But at its heart, it's about children with little resources that manage to put on a hell of a show.
Intimate, graceful handheld movements of their Sony HD Camera (Sean Fine worked as cameraman) emphasize the you-are-there spirit of the film. One scene is particularly beautiful despite the squalid surroundings. Villagers line up for food, their colorful clothes, the red clay dirty and ocean blue skies forming the cinematic equivalent of great painting.
The stumble that keeps the film from timeless status comes during an extended sequence involving the festival awards. Perhaps, in hopes of making "War Dance" a movie that also makes a difference, the Fines felt they had to say something about winners and losers. A better finish would be closer to the spirit of Nancy, Dominic and Rose, who learn that achieving something beautiful, special and artistic is victory enough.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Steve Ramos is an award-winning film writer based in Cincinnati, Ohio. When not on assignment, he maintains the blog Flyover Online.
Get the latest coverage of Park City '07 in indieWIRE's special section here at indieWIRE.com