Spellbound” with orphans, “War Dance” has a foot in two movie camps: One is the sadly unceasing number of stories about African tragedy, the other the unstoppable parade of films about kids (or virtual kids) competing in spelling bees/Scrabble/crossword puzzle/dance contests. If this seems incongruous, it is: The young black faces are too beautiful, the landscapes too pretty, and the personal stories of slaughter too scripted. While the pic may be targeting Westerners who want to feel less awful about genocide and global negligence, it’s hard to imagine “War Dance” appealing to that crowd — or any other.
Well-intentioned but a victim of its own high cinematic values, “War Dance” addresses the issues of unending war in northern Uganda, where students at the Patongo Primary School in the Patongo refugee camp are to compete in a nationwide music contest. Three students are the focus of directors Sean and Andrea Nix Fine: Rose, a singer, Dominic, a xylophone player, and Nancy, a dancer, all of whom relate stories of unspeakable brutality and murder (Dominic himself was child soldier). They are framed similarly, with a slow focus in and a recriminating stare at the camera. The formal devices of the film, and the lack of spontaneity in the children’s words, do little to sell the message of the movie.
In between the kids’ profiles, we see the school preparing for the competition, which involves native music and dance. No one expects the Patongo children to win, or even perform competitively, which exacerbates one of the problems with “War Dance.” We’re given very little perspective on what the competition is, how well Patongo has to perform to win or what the students’ odds really are. The conclusion auds will leap to is that Patongo is going to do very well. Why else would we be here?
“War Dance” provides a service, perhaps, by making the issues of African warfare more presentable to a wider audience — more palatable, by connecting it to the ultimately hopeful stories of Rose, Dominic and Nancy. They represent children all over the world who have been orphaned, violated or forced to carry arms. But the people who need such matters sugar-coated aren’t going to see “War Dance” anyway. And those do will find the experience an affront.