It’s almost hallucinatory to see the plot mechanics of Spellbound applied to the traumatic reality of Uganda’s 20-year-old civil war, but that’s what co-directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine have done in their often shimmeringly beautiful and always heartrending documentary about Ugandan refugee children and their adventures in Uganda’s National Music and Dance Competition. Listening to the testimonials of these victimized youngsters has much of the impact of hearing Holocaust survivors talk about the death camps; the mind reels at an unendurable anguish that has somehow been endured.
With their families broken by a war in which villagers are slaughtered at will and children are abducted and forced to serve in the rebel army that killed their fathers and mothers, the students of the Patongo primary school have found relief in music and dance. Because they live in an internal refugee camp, they are considered second-class citizens by many Ugandans. Against long odds, they’ve made it into a national competition, where they will face thousands of performers from the more privileged and stable Ugandan south, and, where for Patongo School, self-respect and an opportunity to escape the past is the real prize.
Full of breathless close-ups and eager moments of triumph, disappointment and suspense, the thrill-of-victory-agony-of-defeat aspects of War Dance are competently done, but they’re also formulaic and the least interesting part of this movie. What keeps the generic aspects of the Spellbound blueprint from pulling the movie down a notch or two is that there is transparently so much more at stake for Patongo than there could ever be for children who hadn’t managed to stay children despite having supped full of horrors. When these country kids set out for the big city under armed escort, one smiles and says, “I’m very excited to see what peace looks like.” Places where children must say such things should not be allowed to exist in this world.
The dam really breaks in the walkabout and interview segments, where Sean Fine, doing double duty as the film’s cinematographer, reveals himself to be a lyrical and respectful visual chronicler of unimaginable grief. When the kids talk about the immediate horrors they’ve seen and, in one case, even been forced at gunpoint to participate in, the film listens, patiently underscoring their stories with riven and desolate imagery reflective of their shattered lives.
The emotional centerpiece in this drama of resurrection occurs when a child named Nancy joins her mother for a first visit to the makeshift grave in which the mother was forced to bury her own husband after rebel soldiers made her watch as they dismembered him. Nancy collapses at the gravesite, screaming in anguish and begging to be buried beside the father she loved and whom the younger brothers and sisters she now takes care of will never know. The prayer over her father that her mother coerces from her comes out a keening curse against the god who allows such terrors.
Then the two of them rise and begin to walk back to the refugee camp they live in, and the mother says gently, to calm Nancy, and to bring her back inside their everyday reality, “This is the bush, Nancy. It’s not safe to cry so loudly here.” No sadder words have ever been said to comfort an afflicted child.
Directors/Screenwriters: Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine
Producer: Albie Hecht
Rating: PG-13 for some thematic material involving descriptions of war atrocities
Running time: 105 min.
Release date: November 9, 2007 NY/LA