Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
Despite its troubled subjects—three children who are survivors of atrocities suffered in Uganda's war-torn north—"War/Dance" is a beautifully shot and ultimately hopeful documentary about the power of music to heal. Its veteran directors, Andrea Nix and Sean Fine, have had considerable experience making films throughout the world and in all kinds of terrains but they've never shot in such a war-torn place before. Besides the usual problems of filmmaking, the duo had to worry about disease, a dearth of supplies and whether some of their subjects would be attacked again—these are kids who had nearly their entire families wiped out by rebels as young as themselves.
While juxtaposing the beauty of the region with dreadful stories of death and survival, Nix and Fine document several of these children living in a displacement camp who become part of a troupe that competes in their country's national music and dance festival.
There's nothing quite like this film; it arouses one's repulsion at the atrocities cited and awakens a well of compassion at the same time. Full of hope and pain, Nix and Fine's doc much deserves the Oscar nomination they have gotten for this year's Best Documentary. With all the trials and tribulations endured in making and completing this film, they had a lot to talk about as well.
Q: So had you been to Uganda before filming this?
AN: No, we've both been to different parts of Africa but never to Uganda.
Q: How long did it take you to shoot this film?
AN: 12 weeks. In two different shoots, but 12 weeks total.
Q: How long did it take to get the film altogether?
SF: It took about a year and a half.
Q: Was there any apprehension in shooting over there? It must have been quite a process to getting in there to do it.
SF: When we were first approached about shooting a documentary about the situation in Northern Uganda, we had to really talk about it and talk about the precautions we were going to take in order to insure it would be a safe shoot. Both Andrea and I have worked for National Geographic in the past, that's where we've met, so we've filmed in a lot of dangerous locations with dangerous animals and places and I've been to a bunch of war zones before. But this war zone in particular was really dangerous because of its unpredictable nature.
Kids anywhere to nine to 16 were waiting to ambush your vehicle with machetes or AK-47s and there is no reason behind what they're doing what they do--they're just told to do it and so if they get you, they'll pretty much kill you. They're not going to ask you for money, they're not going to negotiate with you. They're going to kill you, because if they kill you they're going to move up the ranks of their kind of "child-soldier..."
SF: Hierarchy. So it was pretty dangerous. We talked about it. Our son was 1 at the time we filmed this. We usually go on all our shoots together. And this time we made a conscious decision to split up.
I went to Northern Uganda and Andrea stayed at home but we were communicating every other day. We lived in the IDP camp an internally displaced camp, and then to speak with Andrea I would climb up this brick wall that was in a local brothel.
That was the only place to get cell phone reception and we'd talk and it would be until three in the morning and I would talk to Andrea about the things I've shot and it was really helpful working this way.
I was so entrenched in keeping everyone safe, and trying to stay healthy myself--actually I got malaria while I was there--that it was really rough going. Trying to keep all that together, along with the emotions going on with filming something like this and then being able to download everything I've shot to Andrea, just to talk to her about it, we we're so in sync that then for her to kind of look back, step back and kind of say this is what the big picture should be, have you thought of this angle, going this way, or ask this question, I mean that's what helped make the film what it is. This collaboration we had was hugely important. If we couldn't talk, then I don't think that it would be the film that it is right now.
AN: Structurally, its probably the most challenging film we've ever worked or taken on, because if you think about--as writers or journalists you have to tell a story that you really want to get to the human content. But you know there's a war, there's a music competition, you have three children to set up, there's a lot of things. We wanted to take people on a journey that brought them to the highs and lows emotionally.
I really wanted this not [just] to be a factual film; we wanted to make this film very different from things that we've made before, and that other people have made before, you know, these kinds of stories. We really thought about how we were going to tell the story in a different way, both in terms of message, as well as the look of it.
SF: They talked with us about the specifics of danger and working in that environment. How we were able to get where we were. Basically Uganda is separated into two countries as far as I can tell. There's the Northern side which is in the war zone and then there's the Southern side which is very peaceful and Kampala is a very peaceful place and everything seems to be going quite well.
And so when you go to Kampala, you have to meet with the military and get permission. That took a lot of meetings; they wanted to know what we were doing, so we got permission to go up and film but they also put restrictions on us.
We [were told] we could not leave the internally displaced camp, we could not be out before 9 in the morning, or out past five in the evening. For a filmmaker, that's awful. For a cinematographer, that's even more awful. That's like the best time to shoot.
So what we did was we said, "Okay," and we stuck to the game plan a little bit but as we decided on Potongo. There was no other way to make the film other than to stay in the camp with the kids. And so what we did was, we got to know the locals and the military really well there. We got to know them by playing late-night card games of "Uno" and we really got to know them and talk to them and once they saw what we were doing, once they saw it was about these kids, they said. "go ahead, do what you want." We did have some hairy moments.
One time we were filming, people would come and say, the rebels just crossed, and they just took three children. We would go where they were supposedly taken and look and we wouldn't see anyone. We had a moment when I had gotten the full-blown symptoms of malaria and not knowing what was going on and we were coming back late at night in a jeep and we weren't supposed to be out this late and we were coming back at 11:30 and there's this log in the road and we stopped and then a bunch of men in camouflage with RPGS come up to the car and with RPGS enter through the windows. It doesn't even make sense to me because an RPG pointed at point blank kills you and the person shooting it too. But they were screaming at us It just kept getting heightened and heightened--we couldn't figure out what was going on.
Luckily for us, it turned out to be the military, a small military outpost and they didn't know that we were allowed out but it took about two hours for everyone to calm down but we were ok. That's the unpredictable nature of what's going on. When you have someone with an RPG, and they didn't look all that well trained, and we found out later that they were really just local people the military hired on and gave them weapons. It's kind of nerve racking. Also I had malaria at the same time so...it was a pretty crazy moment.
Q: When you're in situations like that, everything is crucial and it seems everyone has their own agenda. As a filmmaker, how do you discern who is telling you the truth?
SF: That's a good question because we interviewed many, many kids. We actually started off with two different schools. I see it, as a filmmaker, to find the truth you have to ask the right questions. 75% of it is asking the right question and asking around to see if this is true. And I think 25% is a gut instinct. I rely on that a lot too. I can tell now when someone is really telling me what's going on.
We're also dealing with kids. On the one hand they're very honest, and on the other they do have a pretty wild imagination. So there are instances when they would tell us things that had happened then we had a translator there paraphrasing the answers to their questions.
AN: He was a former child soldier so he was able to so he was able to lend--then you talk to the headmasters.
SF: Yeah, you also rely on the translator as well. Like what's your feelings and interviews--we would take a long time doing interviews, spread them out over a many days. if we got into an intense moment we would let that finish, pack up and come back a couple of days later and maybe we would ask some of the same questions. We would have the question answered two or three times sometimes.
Q: What were some of those tense moments?
UM: Well the most tense moment moments of an interview...was when Dominick says, "I've never told anyone this before, but I've killed people." He tells this whole story of how he kills these farmers. And then he says he had never told anyone this before.
AN: Not even his mother.
SF: Not even his mother. And he and his mother have this really tight relationship and a tight bond. When I heard that I stopped and I said to the translator: "Are you sure this is what he is saying?" And we asked again and he said "Yeah."
We turned the camera off and I said, "You know Dominick, people are going to see this. Your mom is going to see this, I want to show this to you guys, I want to show this to all of Uganda."
And he said "I know."
And then I said, "Are you sure you want to say this kind of thing?" And then he said, "I think this is the most honorable way for me to tell people and that it is the biggest way that I can help."
That's exactly what he said. Even then we didn't continue to keep filming. We stopped. I had to think about it and I called Andrew, and asked "Should we go ahead with this?" And at that point we had it in the can--so we could leave it in the film or leave it out and we had many talks about whether we should leave this in the film. We actually talked about it to him even more and we was like "I want that to be part of my story."
AN: I think that anytime we are feeling, a sharing of something private, this came up with Nancy's scene of her going to her father's grave, a very private moment, actually more than Domnick's story and when he called me about that, that was the most rattled I had ever heard Sean.
And he said "I just don't know what we just filmed, it seems so invasive, so intrusive, so private, I sent the rest of the crew away because I had no idea this was going to unfold this way. And I'm not sure this should be in the film... and we started talking about it and we thought...What's the bigger picture here?
This is something that they trusted you with, they trusted you to be there. So it's not like you're taking something from them that they weren't aware of. Secondly, in terms of the film, some people felt that it was so painful and couldn't watch it anymore and we talked a lot about it because that scene went on for a few hours actually. But giving a glimpse of that allows people to put something in their minds, which is very important to us. There is not a lot of difference between human spirit, over here or over there, that people never get used to losing family members.
These kids are total survivors. Unless you see that grief, you may not understand the depth at which they go through the despair and they never get used to that. Somehow that wasn't just ok that Nancy lost her father and she's deeply affected by that despite how she acts and handles herself. We talked a lot about how that would be in the movie what our answer was in the film was that we just kept cutting that scene shorter, and shorter, and shorter. And it was something that we felt like "what are we leaving people with, what is the human story we're giving to people and what are they walking away with?"
SF: Especially for Nancy.
AN: She's so tough.
SF: She's a tough little adult. Even the way I'm shooting her, I forget she's a kid. She's taking care of her family, she's going to school, she's really good at dancing. And then to see her collapse like that...it was night and day between her personality and what I had experienced with her. We thought that was really important to see that she's a very dynamic individual and human being as well.
AN: That's actually something we felt very strongly about all these kids stories. Why did we approach it this way? We do want to show what's the painful part of what's happening, we wanted people to be aware of what's going on, we felt it was important to show the whole story of these kids, their lives, they are more then what someone has done to them.
They're not solely victims, they are whole individuals and that they are beautiful and talented and resilient and to watch them. And my hair still stands up when I watch the end of our film because that's the part I still cry at. I've seen the film so many times, that we are really taken by how amazing these kids are and that's what we hope the audience will also feel after watching.
SF: The other part about Nancy's scene which is sometimes forgotten, is filming her mother's reaction. It's the first time we get to film a parent's reaction. And I think Andrea and I as parents--your job as a parent first of all is to protect your child. Now when you're in a position where you can't protect your child, what does that do to a parent? And here you're trying to see this mother comfort her daughter, but at the same time dealing with her own grief.
I think sometimes people forget that that mother took her husband in pieces and made his grave and buried him there. So the grief she's dealing with , the trauma she's feeling with at the same time trying to help her daughter when she says to her, "You're too young, I don't want to tell you anymore." And then Nancy gets up and leaves, and then there's just a shot of the mother become helpless by herself. That was very poignant. I think that was just as poignant as Nancy crying. I hope people can look past just the tears and the initial "girl crying" to see more dynamic issues that are going on.
Q: You made a conscious effort not to show the actual, physical violence that goes on in Uganda. Can you explain why?
AN: We feel like those films have been made, again, that the message that we really wanted to get across was the personal experience and what these kids were thinking and feeling and not just about what it felt like to kill somebody. Those are their peak moments of horror in their lives, but the day to day, this is how they're living.
They see themselves as wanting a better life, they're complex, interesting people, they have feelings about being kids, being musicians, they have so much going on there we felt that that was a way that audiences relate to someone. Who hasn't gone gone to a talent contest, who hasn't gone to a swimming hole, who hasn't sit with their mother to tell them to stop fidgeting while she helps sew the hem of your dress, you know? Those moments are really important I think that that message that these kids are being more than just the violence of what had happened to them.
We wanted to share it but we also wanted to do it in a way that was the lease agonizing for them to go through that. We said how are we going to share these stories, in a film, you want to share what had already happened. That's when you get those recreations and all that kind of stuff. We felt we wanted to do it in a certain style and evoke a certain emotion of what they went through but we didn't want to be too specific.
SF: We also want the viewers to get into their mind the trauma that happens to a child. I think that its much more than the general blood and guts drama that we see. We have to face it too, as an American audience, we've seen a lot of that in fiction features. I think that initial trauma is an awful thing to see, that it affects you on such a deeper level, especially for a child. The way they talked about it really influenced how we wanted to shoot. Just the line where Ann says, there were "Ants and flies under that tree" and I remember that sound stuck with me. She remembers sounds and smells and heat, and the influence the visual style.
We did have an opportunity to show some of the violence, we were shown pictures of the massacre, some of the most horrible things I'd ever seen. Bodies, just hundreds of bodies laid across the ground with a big cooking pot...headless and legless. Some guy actually tried to sell them to me for a hundred dollars. I said I didn't even want them. It wouldn't have affected people as much as the way we did it.
Also in Rose's scene, there's skulls and some bones...those are actual bones of people from that massacre. We don't know if her parents are in there, her parents were never buried. She didn't see those bones, but somebody came up to us later and said there's a pile of these. And there was a huge pile of those bodies from that massacre. We didn't' take here there, but I think what Andrea was trying to say is that "yes, they go back to the place where these things happened, but they asked us to take them to these places. "Ok, tell me what happened here."
Q: How did you find this boy soldier/translator that you've found and how did you decide whether or not to include him?
SF: His name is Jimmy Oten, and we found him through...
AN: Human Rights Watch.
SF: Yeah, some of their workers go out into the fields to try and get reports and they go out and try to go out under the radar. And they said we've gotta call this guy. And I called him and we just started a relationship. He was instrumental to the film.
AN: He was very involved. We still keep in contact with the kids. Sean left his cellphone there. We'll get a call from Dominick or his brother and we'll often get it in the middle of the night, this enormous number, and he'd hang up because it doesn't cost him anything to receive a call so we call him back and we keep in touch with him. Jimmy goes back there periodically and he keeps us updated.
SF: We've started a fund for the kids, and Jimmy helps distribute the funds and helps organize that. And keeps up with the kids.