Nancy, Dominic, and Rose are bright kids with weary eyes but big smiles in the documentary War/Dance. The children were born and raised in northern Uganda, which has been embroiled in a civil war since the ’80s. They’ve lost parents and siblings, been forced to become soldiers, and now live in the country’s most dangerous and remote refugee camp.
“They’re old souls,” says Chevy Chase resident Sean Fine, 34, who co-directed the film with his wife, Andrea Nix Fine, 38. “They may be 13 and 14 years old, but they’re all grown up.”
Except, that is, when they’re performing. The kids of the impoverished Patongo Primary School have a talent for singing and dancing—the only pastime that allows them to act their age in a camp where many, like Nancy, raise their orphaned siblings. The film documents the school’s winning bid in 2005 to perform in Uganda’s prestigious National Music Competition. As the students travel from bush country to the city of Kampala, they hope to erase stereotypes of northern Ugandans as rebels and murderers.
“When we set out, them just making it [to the competition] was a journey worth filming, because great films are about journey and transformation,” says Sean. “We took a risk, and we didn’t care how they placed. It was more about their experience.”
The Fines are no strangers to harsh locales: They’ve worked on documentary projects for National Geographic covering everything from prison life to crocodiles in Botswana. So they knew to tread carefully in Uganda. “It’s a very unpredictable war zone,” says Sean, who traveled to the country in 2005 and 2006 with a crew and armed military guard. “There are kids anywhere from 6 to 16 years old who could jump out of a bush and hack you with a machete without even asking for anything. They are brainwashed.”
Sean’s scariest moment came after filming a thunderstorm. “I had malaria,” he says. “It was 11 at night, pitch black, and we were driving 70 miles per hour on a road with huge potholes to avoid rebel ambush, and a giant log is in the middle of the road. Out of the bush comes a bunch of guys who pulled out rocket-propelled grenades and were holding them close to our heads. We figured out after a lot of yelling that they were part of a military outpost that didn’t know what we were doing here, and they were as freaked out as we were.”
The couple usually films together, but Andrea couldn’t come along for the ride: She was at home caring for their infant son. Sean says the separation was beneficial, though. “The top of a brick wall next to the local brothel was the only place you could get cell phone reception,” he says. “I would call Andrea and talk about the film from there. I was so involved in the day-to-day minutiae of making the film that it was helpful to have her step back and look at the big picture.”
That approach paid off: The couple won the prize for best documentary directing at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. (War/Dance opens nationally this weekend and in D.C. on Nov. 16.) The Fines keep in touch with their young subjects, all of whom still live in the camp. They call Sean with updates, and the couple also oversees a scholarship fund for the camp. (A portion of ticket sales go toward the fund.)
“We talked to Dominic the other day, and he said they were practicing for the Queen of England,” Andrea says. “They have been chosen to perform their traditional dance for her when she visits this month.…The war is still going on, but they’re doing really well.”