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12.12.07

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DANCE FEVER: Children compete in a national dance festival.

African Idol

Uganda's National Music Competition is attended by some special children in 'War Dance'

By Richard von Busack


NANCY, 14, is a member of the Acholi tribe, living at the Patongo Refugee Camp (population 20,000) in the unpacified north of Uganda. For decades, a group called the Lord's Resistance Army has been doing the work of Jehovah as it understands Him, murdering families, driving the survivors into the bush and impressing child soldiers into service. In this conflict, 30,000 have been enslaved. The underreported struggle in the Acholi homeland, where Uganda meets Sudan, carries on a long tradition of ethnic conflict between the north and the south in the former British colony. Now 90 percent of the Acholi are gathered in refugee camps, including 200,000 orphans. Nancy speaks to the camera in War Dance, and her account of the destruction of her family is artless. It doesn't need embellishing. One morning, her mother and father were going out to farm. The mother came back alone. She told her children as much as she could: men with machetes killed her husband and forced her to dig a grave for him; that night the rebels came back and seized Nancy's mother. The girl, now living in a hut with her three siblings, isn't asking for anything except a hearing. "Most people in the world think that this is the way people live in Africa. But I want to tell them that this is not the way people in Africa live." Nancy is not a guerrilla but a singer and dancer. The documentary War Dance shows how Patongo's children had a public triumph in Kampala.

During its three-day length, the National Music Competition pits the nation's schools against each other in different categories, including Western chorale, instrumental and traditional dance. "It's like the Olympics," explains the festival's director, Stephen Rwangyezi. Form as well as talent is judged during the three-day fest. Maybe the saddest thing is the judges' insistence that these traumatized children should smile broadly as part of the performance.

Directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine are National Geographic veterans, here working with Shine Global, a nonprofit foundation that is trying to alert the world to one of Africa's least-known crises. The stage shows by the Patongo students, which beg for crane shots and multiple-camera setups, are shot with the limited equipment available. One demonstration of the traditional Bwola dance seems to have been filmed by someone who climbed a tree. But the African music—particularly the traditional orchestra with tall harps and wooden xylophones—has the beauty and complexity of great jazz. War Dance does the best it can with the limited resources. We have to take it on faith that this competition will help heal these savaged children. The small terse moment where a boy speaks gently with a captured soldier, one of the troops who may have killed his brother, demonstrates the kind of human resilience that you'd laugh off the screen if you saw it in a fictional film.


Movie Times WAR DANCE (PG-13; 104 min.), a documentary by Sean and Andrea Nix Fine, opens Dec. 14 at Camera 12 in San Jose.


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