2007, PG-13, 105 min. Directed by Sean Fine, Andrea Nix Fine.
REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., March 7, 2008
To paraphrase Exene Cervenka of the Los Angeles punk band X, "The world's a mess; it's in their dance." This two-pronged documentary, which follows the ups, downs, and all-arounds of a group of Ugandan schoolchildren – victims of a 20-year civil war who compete in a national dance contest – was both a Sundance favorite and a 2008 Oscar nominee, and it's easy to see why. Longtime doc-directing couple the Fines are no strangers to composing shots that juxtapose scenes of tremendous hardship against backdrops of eye-watering beauty (they've possibly done more than their share of National Geographic Channel films), and the technique serves them well here. Conversely, it could be (and has been) argued that the sheer volume of what too often seems like (though probably aren't) staged sequences of weeping children pounding their clenched fists on the dusty graves of their parents – and similar-in-tone imagery – unpleasantly serves to undercut the humanitarian disaster inherent in the children's stories themselves. They are posed in front of aquamarine backdrops (huts, hovels, houses) beneath the imposing blue majesty of the Ugandan sky, and these images are intercut with interview footage and lengthy but never overlong sequences of the kids practicing for the upcoming contest in Kampala. The result is to make War Dance seem to be of two minds. It's both a valuable, unassailable lesson in overcoming the increasingly ritualized, frequently tribal-based atrocities that are far too often becoming part and parcel of the African continent's self-identity via the arts (specifically the rengenerative powers of a 500-year-old dance) and a textbook primer on how to document societal nadirs and recent histories of outright butchery – as only human beings can do it – without driving your intended audience into the depths of species-centric self-loathing and abject depression. We in the West are in danger of becoming jaded, I think, to the nightmares clambering and clawing outside our borders, and if this is the only way to recontextualize and make known those bloodthirsty midnights without pandering or repositioning the victims and survivors as them, over there, then okay, bring on the aquamarine backgrounds and the well-lighted tears streaking down dusky young faces. "It's difficult for people to believe our story," says one kid, succinctly, eloquently, "but if we don't tell you, you won't know."