While Redacted can’t be ugly enough, War/Dance means to prettify. Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine’s well-intentioned documentary is set in a place as horrific as contemporary Iraq: northern Uganda, where the demented Lord’s Resistance Army has kidnapped children and forced them to become killers and prostitutes (“Repair for Battle,” Nov. 9). Young survivors of that war, including victims and kids compelled to be victimizers, now live in the Patongo refugee camp. The Fines have a few of them tell their heart-rending stories, but the film’s narrative focus is on a triumph that’s supposed to balance the torment. In 2005, some 300 singers, musicians, and dancers from Patongo Primary School qualify for the first time to travel to Kampala for a national competition.
The products of the Acholi tribe’s deeply musical culture, the kids impress the big-city skeptics, who had assumed that Patongo residents are too damaged to sing and dance well. Critics certainly have reason to make such assumptions: 13-year-old choral singer Rose watched her parents’ murder; 14-year-old xylophonist Dominic was dragooned into the rebel army and made to help kill blameless bystanders; and 14-year-old dancer Nancy raised her three younger
siblings after her father was butchered and her mother was kidnapped. (Mom ultimately returned.) Each tells her or his nightmarish story directly to the camera, and if the accounts feel rehearsed, they’re poignant nonetheless.
Such appalling anecdotes are the film’s principal justification. The scenes that document the competition are schlocky and conventional, complete with a Documentary 101 summation in which the action goes slo-mo, the music fades, and the kids reveal their reactions in voiceover. Aided by lovely landscapes and the music of Ugandan exile Geoffrey Oryema, the filmmakers doggedly seek enchantment amid the terror. But War/Dance’s most striking moments are its most chilling, as when one boy asks a former insurgent if he’s seen his brother, who has a bike-taxi business. No, says the survivor matter-of-factly, but the rebels had been instructed to kill anyone with a bicycle. Whether the Patongo Primary School wins or loses, no song-and-dance contest can jollify that sort of diabolical logic.