by Jimmie Briggs
Over the last twenty years, the Acholi people of northern Uganda have endured many curses, including war, displacement, AIDS and Ebola. Yet in contrast to the global response to the Darfur crisis in neighboring Sudan, the international community has largely ignored the conflict raging around the Acholi people. Caught up in a civil war between the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA)--the infamous rebel group led by self-styled messiah Joseph Kony--and the elected government of Uganda, tens of thousands of people have died and an estimated 1.6 million have been displaced. More than 30,000 children have been forcibly conscripted by the LRA.
Yet, as the courageous youth in War/Dance prove, the child survivors of war are not silent victims. The film, which won this year's Sundance award for documentary directing, follows a group of schoolchildren from Uganda's Patongo Displacement Camp who win, of all things, a regional music and dance contest--an honor that allows them to participate in the prestigious National Music Competition in Kampala, Uganda's capital.
War/Dance is a contest film, one in which the emotional stakes are elevated for everyone--including the audience--when professional instructors arrive in Patongo to help the students prepare. We witness as well the troupe's two-day journey to Kampala and their three-day competition against four dozen schools from all over the country. But it is also a film in which buoyant rehearsal scenes alternate with glimpses of profound sadness. Trauma is etched into the vulnerable faces of the children, including Dominic, a 14-year-old who longs to be the best xylophone player in all of Uganda. "I know God is not happy with me," he says quietly, after describing the horrors he witnessed--and participated in--after being abducted by the LRA. In a scene that embodies the weight children are forced to carry in war, a choir singer named Nancy collapses during a visit to the grave of her father, who was killed by the LRA.
War/Dance is a war film in which no scenes of fighting are shown. For the children of Patongo, and countless more throughout the world, the most devastating impact of conflict is suffered in the heart and mind. It is thus all the more affecting to see this small group of children find precious moments of joy in their music and dance?perhaps the best defense against recurring nightmares of loss. "In everything we do," observes Dominic, "if there is music, life is good." After a certain point, the outcome of the Kampala competition seems far beside the point. ai.
Jimmie Briggs, the author of Innocents Lost: When Child Soldiers Go to War, is a New York-based writer who covers the impact of war on women and children around the world.