There’s a phrase made famous by Thomas Hobbes, used to great effect in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, and that is: Homo homini lupus. That Latin phrase roughly translates to “Man is a wolf to man,” and strikes the keynote to part of the powerful film War/Dance.
The film, exquisitely shot by Sean Fine and directed by Andrea Nix Fine, tells the story of a group of Ugandan children who live in a government camp that offers 60,000 refugees a semi-safe haven from 20-year war between the Ugandan government and the Christian terrorist group known as the Lord’s Resistance Army.Â The leader of the LRA is Joseph Kony, and his overt aims are to build a Christian theocracy in the northern region of Uganda — which is home to the Acholi tribe.Â However, what the LRA is really doing is abducting children (who often have to kill their own parents) and forcing them to fill many roles (i.e., soldiers, sex slaves, and torturers) as the LRA attempts to build their utopia.Â Kony claims to be creating a society based on the Ten Commandments, but, as it’s been pointed out by many human rights organizations, the LRA routinely violates many of the commandments they claim to uphold (the first, obviously, is not to kill.)
In this war-torn environment, we meet three children (Rose, Dominic and Nancy) who live in the camp and have had to witness horrors no one should.Â Nancy’s father and mother were abducted by the LRA one day while working in the fields, and Nancy and her siblings had to hide for three days in the bush before fleeing to the safety of the government camp.Â Nancy’s mother eventually escaped from her captors and was able to briefly stay with the kids before moving to another city to find work.Â Nancy’s father didn’t survive.Â He was killed almost immediately upon capture (hacked into pieces by a group of kids wielding machetes) and his wife was ordered to pick up the pieces of her dead spouse and bury him.
Rose’s parents were also killed by the LRA and their bodies were displayed in a gruesome way.Â She recounted a harrowing story of a time when she was brought to the place where rows of pots were boiling with human remains, and shown the head of her mother. Throughout much of the film, there’s an emotionless shield Rose and Nancy use to protect themselves, but it certainly cracks when the girls recount their tragic loss and the alienation they feel.
Dominic’s story was a bit more truncated.Â Like Rose and Nancy, he’s 13 years old and was also drawn into the LRA’s circle of brutality as a soldier where he was ordered to kill a group of captured farmers. He never told anyone about what he did as an LRA soldier until Sean Fine put a camera in front of him.Â Indeed, it’s not clear that any of these kids talked about the LRA until they were able to reveal the horrors to Fine.
Despite the horror these children have experienced, they are inspired to participate in a national dance and music contest in the capitol city of Kampala — with about 20 of their camp mates.Â Fine presents this part of the story as the triumph of the human spirit and shows how, even in the dire circumstances these children live in, they are able to achieve creative heights that very few believed they could reach.Â We, as viewers, clearly see the change in the children’s demeanor as they practice day after day for the competition, singing, dancing the traditional Bwola dance, and even acting out in short skits.Â They are aided by two professional artists who devote a month to help the kids refine their performances so when they take the stage in Kampala they are seen not as refugees by their fellow citizens, but as people with tremendous talent, skill, and tribal pride.
Although the moments in Kampala are clearly the high point of the film, and the Fines succeed in showing the drama and suspense of the competition, I have to say there are very few documentaries I have seen that illustrate the pain of war in such a heart-wrenching way as War/Dance.Â Â When Nancy — four years after the event — visits her father’s grave with her mother, words can’t even convey how devastating Nancy’s grief is as she lays crying and pleading for her father to get up, and calling out to LRA to kill her so she can be buried with him.Â If there were ever a moment when the emotional hell of war is made painfully clear, this is it.
The Fines made an interesting and inspired choice in the way they shot the film.Â The amazing images of Uganda and the stylish shots of the children and village life are, in a word, beautiful. Some have criticized the Fines for shooting the film this way because it obscures the horrors many of the children have witnessed, but it just underscores the contrasts in a part of the world where unspeakable horrors can occur in such an Edenic place.
In all the large and small ways we get desensitized to violence, and grow cynical at the achievements of others, War/Dance will put you in touch with the side of humanity that craves the compassion, peace, and beauty and tames the wolfish urges of our nature.