"It is difficult for people to believe our story," 14-year-old Dominic says at the beginning of "War/Dance," an enormously emotional and spirit-raising documentary. "But if we don't tell you, you won't know." And if you don't know, you will be missing something quite special.
To make a memorable documentary, a film like "Hoop Dreams" or "Spellbound" that can't be forgotten once seen, you have to be more than gifted, you need an instinct for an unusual story and, frankly, you must have luck on your side. "War/Dance," co-directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, has all that and more.
Winner of the documentary directing award at Sundance and audience awards at festivals around the country, "War/Dance" is as irresistible as the rhythms of African music on its soundtrack. It's a fantasy set in real life, and, like all great fantasies, its moments of light are set against a backdrop of darkness and even horror.
The setting in this case is Uganda, more specifically northern Uganda, where a terrifying group called the Lord's Resistance Army has been in rebellion against the government for about 20 years, often resorting to the use of abducted child soldiers to stay in business. Members of the north's Acholi tribe have been forced to live in war zone displacement camps so vulnerable to the rebels they are under round the clock military protection.
Uganda also is a country where music and dance are so important that capital city Kampala hosts an annual National Music Competition, for which all of the country's 20,000 schools compete to enter. As the competition's director says, "it's the Olympics as far as these kids are concerned."
These two aspects of Uganda don't ordinarily meet. But in 2005 the primary school in the remote Patongo refugee camp, with students who are largely war orphans or rescued child soldiers, won its regional competition and, for the first time, headed to Kampala to compete in the nationals.
Co-director Sean Fine, who served as cinematographer, spent three months in Patongo, observing the participants as they prepared for the big event and getting close enough to the kids to have three of them trust him with their own dreadful stories.
Rose, a 13-year-old orphan, saw things no one, child or not, should witness. Nancy, age 14, kept her younger siblings together as a family after their father was murdered and their mother abducted. And Dominic, a devoted xylophone player also 14, did things during his time as a child soldier he's been unable to tell anyone.
Though "War/Dance" at times overdramatizes already dramatic material, when these children relate their experiences directly to the camera, the effect is overpowering.
The remarkable thing about "War/Dance" is the therapeutic, restorative effect singing and dancing has on these understandably somber young people. Like turning on a switch, performing enables them to recapture their true selves. "Singing makes you forget," one of them says, and another insists, "in our daily lives there must be music. Life becomes so good."
Though the national competition is in eight categories, "War/Dance" concentrates on three of them: Western choral performance, instrumental and traditional dance, where the students embrace the Bwola, the dance of the Acholi. "This is handed down to us by our ancestors," they say. "Even war cannot take it from us."
As the Patongo students head off to the nationals, the film's natural climax, they are excited to see "what peace looks like" and intent on proving themselves. "We are going to show them," says Dominic, "that we are giants." Win, lose or draw, "War/Dance" shows us that they already are.
"War/Dance." MPAA rating: PG-13, for "some thematic material involving descriptions of war atrocities." Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes. Laemmle's Royal, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles