||This uplifting film about students at a refugee school in war-torn Uganda who work to overcome their traumatic past by practicing for a national music contest is a curious mixture of gritty subject and slick technique. Though the combination is intended to enhance the picture’s emotional power, it instead actually dilutes it.
“War/Dance” focuses on three of the students at the Patongo school in northern Uganda. Two are girls—Rose, a singer, and Nancy, a dancer. The third is Dominic, who plays the xylophone. Over the first part of the picture we watch them, and their classmates, work hard to improve their technique under prodding from their teachers. But we’re also told about their past lives, filled with tragedy and horror. The film then turns to the contest in Kampala, where the children—and those from other schools—are shown performing, ending with the ceremony at which winners are announced.
It’s indisputable that these children’s story is one calculated both to sadden and to inspire. As they relate details about their experiences, it would take a heart of stone not to be moved. (Dominic was forced to become a child soldier, and when Nancy visits her the isolated grave of her father, who was killed in the conflict, she shrieks in grief, begging to join him.) And it can’t help but gladden viewers to see them now housed in a safe environment, enthusiastic about performing and to a certain extent overcoming their tortured memories with present joy. At the end, as usual in such films, we’re informed during the credit crawl of their hopes for the future.
But paradoxically, the film’s artsy surface diminishes its impact. In their interviews the three children are placed in carefully staged (and beautifully lit) compositions, and as they testify directly toward the camera, the tone seems at least partially accusatory. In general the camerawork emphasizes lovely, colorful images that have a slightly lulling effect, cloaking the harsh realities in what seems an overly attractive package. Of course, one doesn’t want to criticize the filmmakers overmuch for demonstrating their cinematic skills; and in and of themselves the effect of the images is quite impressive. The fact is, though, that in this context the approach seems overly calculated and dissonant with the material.
Despite that, however, “War/Dance” tells a story about the consequences of African violence that may not be new to documentaries but needs to be told repeatedly in the face of apparent international indifference. For that reason alone, it’s worthwhile.