"War Dance" follows a long line of documentaries eager to expose the joy of life trapped deep within the world's most dangerous locations. Personally, I don't think I'll ever fatigue of such tales and "War Dance" is a worthy addition to the genre, eloquently assembling a powerful story of artistic communication in the middle of a land known primarily for bottomless horror.
In northern Uganda sits the Patongo Primary School, a place of education located in the heart of a war zone, where the Lord's Resistance Army (L.R.A.) has wreaked havoc for over 20 years. The students are made up of orphans who've watched their parents slaughtered, former prisoners and boy soldiers of the L.R.A., and the rest of the pre-teen collateral damage of the countryside. However, it's time to put aside the gloom because the National Music Competition has arrived, with over 20,000 schools vying for a shot to participate in this significant musical showdown. For Patongo, a victory here will send a message of vitality around the continent, commencing a meticulous rehearsal process to achieve their ultimate moment onstage.
Directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine bring such a sensation of triumph and community spirit to "War Dance" that it's easy to overlook the sobering glimpse of Hell presented within. It's a valiant documentary, showcasing children blessed with an unnerving resiliency; kids who make it through their daily hardships (the compact refugee camp holds 60,000 people) somehow still able to retain a feeling of pride and responsibility that's astounding to behold. These are children who have observed mass death and experienced cruel abandonment, and while their psyches are cracked (tears are reluctantly shed), they soldier on, looking for moments such as the competition to grab a hold of, to escape their fear and challenge their fresh minds.
"War Dance" goes back and forth between the creation of Patongo's musical routines and tracing the steps of a select few of the students. Obviously the history behind these children is shocking; they've witness atrocities and have been forced into caretaker roles in their early teens, and their despondency fills the frame every moment the picture steps carefully into their nightmarish memories. However, the filmmakers don't wallow in misery, using the startling backstory as a foundation for future triumphs.
Once the preparations get under way for the competition, "War Dance" settles into an educational mood, observing teachers from across the land try to tame the children, teaching them stage presence and musical competence. The highlight is Dominic, an escaped child soldier who treasures his time playing the xylophone, hopeful to impress the judges with his talents and beaming stage magnetism. Desperate to corral the students into a viable roadshow, "War Dance" includes several moments of musical serenity to enjoy as the learning process rolls along.
Presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio), "War Dance" can only get so much mileage out of its limited HD photography. The image is strong, with comfortable black levels and minimal color bleeding. For the modest intention of the documentary, the DVD experience is acceptable, just not remarkable.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital sound mix has much more to work with than the visual presentation, and the heavenly songs of the Patongo students are allowed a full-throated representation on the DVD. The soundtrack is a unified celebration of voices and instrumentation, so the DVD doesn't leap around the soundfield, instead remaining a most agreeable frontal assault.
A selection of deleted and extended scenes (21 minutes) explores the difficult, sometimes humiliating rehearsal process further; takes a xylophone lesson with Dominic and investigates his past, including time with his mother; and talks up the history and ghastly realities of the Ugandan conflict.
A theatrical trailer for "War Dance" is included, along with a "trailer gallery" of other Thinkfilm titles such as "In the Shadow of the Moon," "Taxi to the Dark Side," and "Nanking."
Traveling over 200 miles to host city Kampala to compete and to "see what peace looks like," "War Dance" climaxes with the magnetic result of the grueling rehearsals. To win means certain recognition, but just to be included speaks miles about Patongo's achievement and self-worth. "War Dance" might stumble into familiar realms, but it's always exceptional and amazingly uplifting.