Film Review #171: War/Dance
Directors: Sean and Andrea Nix Fine
In Syracuse last October to screen a rough cut of Sweet Crude, her documentary about the ravages that US oil drilling visits upon the Niger Delta’s people and environment, Seattle filmmaker Sandy Cioffi explained her seemingly odd treatment of statistics, which intermittently cascaded down the screen at what was at first perturbingly unreadable speed.
“What number could I put on screen that would make the killing stop?” she asked. Emerging from a long stretch of watching other people’s documentaries, Cioffi had decided that arguments from grim numbers alone don’t change much and, far from being persuasive as forms of argument, may even make it easier to look away.
Cioffi is not alone among filmmakers and some photographers (especially those whose work intentionally leans toward the cinematic) in this conviction. Also last year, local artist Ellen Blalock’s photo and video exhibition Father’s Day at Community Folk Art Gallery set lush, classically posed, large format portraits of muscular young African American fathers in Hip Hop attire cradling their small children against a video stream in one corner with a similar cascade of tumbling numbers, clearly deriding the capacity of statistics to tell us much of what’s true about these young men. Fazal Sheikh’s Beautiful Daughters series, brought to Syracuse University in a controversial show whose extremely large prints he told me in a phone interview were meant to be “cinematic,” portrayed poor widows and girls in India in such lovely images that some criticized him for romanticizing suffering (even as others railed against him for airing India’s dirty laundry). About his photo series The Whipping Post, Brantley Carroll – who says he makes photos instead of movies only because he can “do all the jobs myself” – has been blunt that he means to “rope people in” to confronting slavery with ravishing images that are portals to individual stories and emotional connection.
Although the writer John Berger has distinguished film and photo as looking in different directions – photo after the past moment captured but gone, film toward the pull of what happens next – Blalock, Sheikh and Carroll in different ways all lean toward film’s capacity for story with their photo work. And their work’s reliance on beauty over grit and bankrupt statistics overlaps with films like Hungarian Lajos Koltai’s 2005 Holocaust film Fateless. Or Philip Gröning’s 2005 documentary Into Great Silence, about the ancient order of Carthusian monks in their Alpine monastery, a film that – devoid of any “information” whatsoever about their thriving global business (as the producers of fine liqueur) – focuses instead of how cinema addresses the aesthetic issue of duration as manifested in a life-style of mostly silent meditation. Or Bill Guttentag and Dan Sturman’s Nanking, last year’s documentary about the infamous 1937 “rape” of that Chinese city by invading Japanese forces. Nanking employs – making the conventional grainy archival footage (direct evidence) they include pale by comparison – dramatic performance, readings of letters and diaries from American missionaries present during that siege by actors on a bare, dark sound stage. What effects stay with us? Intriguingly, the filmmaking Taviani brothers recall that it was attending a performance of a Pirandello play as children, during the Fascists’ rule of Italy, that crystallized their grasp of the brutality happening all around them.
Then there’s War/Dance, the documentary by Washington, DC-based husband and wife filmmaker team Sean and Andrea Nix Fine. Oscar-nominated for best documentary this year, War/Dance combines the popular movie template of the school musical performance contest – think back to Mad, Hot Ballroom – with the unlikely subject of the children of Patongo, the most remote and vulnerable refugee camp of northern Uganda’s civil war.
War/Dance came around last January in batches of pre-Oscar DVD screeners sent to reviewers. Talking by phone just days before the Oscars from their car – on the way to another interview in DC – the Fines readily agreed that their film had run a gauntlet of uneasiness over its portrayal of sheer beauty.
Photographed against an astonishingly beautiful landscape that has disconcerted some reviewers, War/Dance embeds a story of equally astonishing savagery within an effort to heal trauma through art. Last November, though clearly admiring the film, the New York Times’ Stephen Holden was uneasy – asking, and I think misreading the Fines’ intentions, “to what extent [can] human savagery be softened…to make it palatable to an audience?”
In 2005, Patongo Primary School competed in the National Music Competition’s finals for the first time in the capital of Kampala. Patongo, home to 60,000 people, is one of the camps to which 90% of the Acholi people have been removed from their ancestral lands by the twenty-year conflict. During that time, the rebels who calls themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army have abducted 30,000 Acholi kids, some as young as five, and forced them to fight.
Only a few statistics in War/Dance – inserted at intervals against a black screen – provide a frame of the enormity of this war’s destruction. The Fines profile three children while relating the weeks leading up to the 200-mile trip to Kampala, that made in an open military troop transport truck under armed escort. Mostly the film focuses on rehearsals – for the “Western choral” (English hymns), musical composition, and traditional dance, an intricate 500-year-old royal dance called the Bwola. Two music teachers – another husband and wife team – come from Kampala to help even the playing field by coaching the children on the finer points of competition and making new, and bracing, demands for excellence. Patonga’s own music teacher says the music heals these children’s trauma “to bring them back to ordinary life.”
This is certainly true of 14-year-old Dominic, whose xylophone-playing takes a national prize. Before that, he practices incessantly in a vast field under a tree, where the serenity coming over face suggests that he also achieves some other state. Then he tells the camera how he was forced to kill some farmers in the field with their own hoes before he escaped the Lord’s Resistance Army, and how he has never told anyone this before. Later, this diminutive boy visits a nearby army post where a rebel commander is held and asks the man – the two of them sit on a wooden bench under another green tree – about his older brother’s fate, so that “I will tell my mother and we can move on in our lives.”
War/Dance also profiles 14-year-old Nancy, who wants to be a doctor, and 13-year-old orphaned Rose, who share equally wrenching vignettes. But for once, we remember them and their stories, and their music, more than the numbers.
An abbreviated version of this review appeared in the 8/21/08 issue of the Syracuse City Eagle weekly, where “Make it Snappy” is a regular column reviewing DVDs of recent movies that did not have a theatrical opening in Central New York & older films of enduring worth.