Students from Patongo Primary School perform a tribal dance, one of eight acts prepared for a national competition.
Despair, joy and music
Young musicians find something to live for amid the brutality of Northern Uganda
THE usual clichés about the power of music, the universal joy of music, blah blah blah, find absolute meaning in "War/Dance," a powerful documentary that was one of this year's Academy Award nominees.
Screens: At 1 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday through March 13; and 1 p.m. March 14 at the Doris Duke Theatre, Honolulu Academy of Arts
The Oscar went to another film, "Taxi to the Dark Side," which must have been some film to have beat out this incredible, indelible work.
"War/Dance" follows the children of Patongo Primary School, in a relocation camp in Northern Uganda, as they prepare for the National Music Competition in the faraway capital of Kampala.
It's a setup common to so many documentaries about underprivileged kids becoming champions. Except that these teenagers are victims of war, and "atrocity" doesn't begin to cover what they've experienced.
Filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine focus on three of the teens, juxtaposing their stories of war against the free, joyful expression of their music.
Nancy tells of how her father was butchered by rebels with the Lord's Resistance Army, and how her mother was forced to bury his body parts. Rose tells of watching as rebel soldiers pulled her parents' severed heads out of a pot. Dominic recalls being kidnapped and forced to kill two men -- when he was just 9 years old.
The children speak directly into the camera, their faces blank with despair. But turn on the music, and their smiles grow wide as the sky.
Patongo's participation in the competition is the first for a school in a camp; the contest is normally dominated by the more privileged schools of the less-dangerous south.
For the children, the trip to Kampala is the first time they will see paved roads, tall buildings, even electricity. But it's more even than that. "I am excited to see what peace looks like," one young dancer says.
It is Dominic, the group's xylophonist, who capsulizes the real power of this film and his own desire to be a part of it. "It's difficult for people to believe our story," he says. "But if we don't tell you, you won't know." He would like to be free of this camp someday, he says, and travel the world making music.
Attention, Bono: Look in this direction.