In 2005 Patongo Primary School in Northern Uganada won the regional competition to represent the Acholi people at the National Music Competition in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city. The children from Patongo have been born and raised in an area ripped apart by the ongoing war between the guerilla rebels, and the Ugandan government. Having lost parents, siblings, and even themselves to the rebels, these children fiercely cling to Africa’s rich musical heritage – losing themselves in dance and song they find a rich sense of purpose in their artistic endeavours.
The Shine Global documentary crew joined the students of Patongo Primary a month before their appearance at the National Music competition. Moving between practice segments, slices of daily Ugandan life in a refugee camp, and moving reflections by three children in their early teens – Dominic, Nancy, and Rose – the team has created a starkly beautiful, and haunting documentary.
Saturated by Ugandan music and breathtaking landscapes, the film is strikingly unornamented. Relying upon masterful cinematography and the words of those being filmed, there is no narrator (apart from brief scene setting text that appears at major transitions). Skillfully woven together are the transparent, yet painful personal narratives provided by the children and their teachers. Free of probing questions, or superficial explanations, these children tell their own story through their words, their music, and their dance.
The raw, visceral emotions expressed by the subjects of the documentary are heartrendingly evocative, yet free of any artificial drama. The complete lack of pretense, the vulnerable sharing these children offer in both English and in their native tongue (English subtitles provided), heightens the power of the film to painful levels.
Though Northern Uganda has suffered from civil unrest since the early ‘80s, little news from this war torn country makes it to the West. If it does, it’s largely ignored. How easily we forget the young faces that suffer in the face of such atrocities. Dominic – the boy who was captured by the rebel forces and coerced into murdering innocent farmers. Nancy – the girl who lost her father, was separated from her mother (supposing her dead), and is now responsible for the care of her three younger siblings as her mother works in other camps. Rose – who has lost both of her parents and now lives with uncaring relatives in what is nearly indentured servitude. These three souls are only a small percentage of the children whose lives have been torn asunder by the war that continues to rage about them.
Still, there is hope – the hope that takes wings in the throes of traditional African dances; the hope that blossoms under the light of recognition; the hope that swells with the opportunity to represent one’s tribe. This is the hope that sees these wounded, yet determined children through the most harrowing circumstances, and gives them wings to fly.
War Dance can be purchased online directly from Shine Global, where a free downloadable teacher’s guide is available along with details on how to help the children of Northern Uganda.