‘War Dance’ beauty stamps false smile on Ugandan strife

War Dance is a stunningly beautiful documentary about the power of music and dance on children in war-torn Uganda, and it is precisely this beauty that makes the film overtly manipulative and ironically trivial.

The visual allure of the film has adverse effects on viewers, leading to the feeling that life in northern Uganda is as blithe as the tribal dances performed. This is obviously not true, and the film certainly never makes this claim. In fact, filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine spend the early part of the film providing us with graphic, heart-wrenching stories about murder and abduction.

However, as the saying goes, it’s not what you say but how you say it. Let us not forget that the medium of film is primarily visual, and how something is captured is just as critical to the audience’s general conception of the piece as what is being captured. That said, the filmmakers have chosen to tell this story with such aesthetic appeal, interwoven with far too many sunsets so that the poignancy is mitigated.

The shots are so exquisitely composed that they draw attention to themselves and away from the story (it is no surprise that both directors previously worked for National Geographic). Furthermore, the film often cuts from medium shots to close-ups of a given subject, making scenes feel staged or duplicated.

Despite these fatal issues, the film is praiseworthy in certain respects. In terms of genre, it is the consummate underdog story. The film follows schoolchildren, many of whom are orphaned, living in the Patongo refugee camp in northern Uganda and training for a nationwide song and dance competition. Some of these children have witnessed unthinkable barbarity, such as seeing their parents’ bug-infested dead bodies and being forced to identify detached heads. That these children are able to compete with the wealthier and more peaceful districts of Uganda is a triumph in itself, and it is uplifting to share this journey with them.

The children of the film tell their harrowing stories directly into the camera. This technique creates a bond with the characters and inevitably implicates the typically passive moviegoer. But one cannot help feeling uncomfortably manipulated by this tactic. It is sort of like the difference between the beggar who quietly sits on the street and the one who comes up to your dinner table asking for spare change, although here, it is the director begging, not the children.

Nevertheless, the filmmakers triumph in capturing raw human emotion: inexpressible anguish and the overwhelming delight brought on by dance. If there is one point in which this film succeeds, it is in showing the binding and healing power of music and dance, and it is a joy to watch these children perform. In fact, if the film’s only goal were to beautifully depict the ritual dance, it would be a monumental success.

The decision to end this film on a positive note is questionable. The children, sparkling with pride and joy, return from their successful trip to the dance competition. Having already spent most of the film in the refugee camp, we are desensitized to it as a shockingly inhuman living space. Upon their return, we are able to ignore the pressing issue of these children’s living conditions and we can share in their feeling of happiness. At this point, we can walk out of the theater, joyous, guilt-free and feeling bizarrely soothed by the film rather than deeply upset by it. In other words, the film has succeeded in creating order out of disorder, as any story should, but we are somewhat kept from the fact that there is still tremendous unrest in northern Uganda.

I have no doubt that the filmmakers have noble intentions with this film, and perhaps the striking visuals function to broaden its appeal – to engage viewers who otherwise would have no interest in seeing it and, resultantly, increase knowledge of the situation in Uganda. Unfortunately, by doing this and deciding to make the movie a crowd-pleaser, the filmmakers have failed to make a film that will encourage change, action or even thought.