Doc of the Day: War Dance Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: War Dance

Posted in Days of Docs by - January 22, 2012

Young people scarred by war find hope through music. Everyone loves Africans who inspire! I also talk about immersion in films and “dishonesty” in documentaries.

Poster courtesy of

Dir. Sean Fine & Andrea Nix Fine, 2007, 106 min

I’ve written here before about how, if fiction uses lies to tell the truth, then documentaries “creatively arrange” the truth to make it more visceral and engaging. Manipulation is inherent to the form. Errol Morris goes into the reliability of images to a far more intelligent and in-depth degree than I can, but basically training a camera lens on anything fundamentally shifts its context and changes the “truth” of that event. So for filmmakers, conveying the unbiased reality of anything that happens is impossible. And that’s okay.

There was a minor kerfuffle an Oscar season or so ago when it turned out that the makers of Waiting for Superman staged a scene where a woman gets an important phone call. Um, hello? That happens all the time. Seriously, do they think that the average documentarians have the time/inclination to wait around with their subjects just in case something important happens? Did they really believe that so many other filmmakers have gotten lucky enough and caught important phone calls on camera, and that Davis Guggenheim was just sloppy and missed it, so he did something dishonest by re-staging it? There are reams of scenes and shots in documentaries that are specifically set up or acted out at the request of the director. I could go through any given doc pointing out which parts I think are staged, but that would probably be annoying. Would it have been more “honest” for Guggenheim to have had the woman just explain to the camera that she received the pivotal call? Maybe. Would it have been as emotionally resonant? Probably not.

Movie-making is sleight of hand. It’s an art of subconscious manipulation, and the best work is often the work that you would never notice if you weren’t looking for it. The same idea applies to docs. As a general rule, the harder time that I have figuring out which parts might have been faked, the more the filmmaker has succeeded (emphasis on the “general” part; there are always exceptions / outliers). Noticing the artificial elements takes the viewer out of the experience. Since immersion is the most crucial aspect of interacting with art, wrecking the immersion can be disastrous.

In case you haven’t guessed, I bring all this up to say that War Dance breaks immersion often enough that I took special notice of it. It’s a very good movie, but it would have been a great one if the makers had done a better job of concealing the false aspects. It was extremely obvious to me which parts were most likely set up. Creative arrangement is the heart of documentary, but arrange too creatively and you draw attention to yourself in negative ways. It’s a very beautifully shot film (the directors both worked for National Geographic), but that, oddly enough, works against it at times, as it is the biggest tip-off to the staged parts.

War Dance is about the students of a school in Patongo, a refugee camp in northern Uganda. The doc follows the kids as they prepare for the National Music Competition, a song and dance contest carrying great prestige. It focuses on three teens in particular, all of whom have been marred by the Lord’s Resistance Army’s violent campaign against the government. Music acts as a soothing balm against both their painful memories and their ongoing difficulties in life, and they are all heavily invested in doing well at the competition.

The first two-thirds of the film feature music surprisingly sparingly, only really letting loose with the singing and dancing once the competition rolls around. The first three acts are mainly devoted to the backgrounds of the three main characters: Rose, Nancy, and Dominic. It is here that the problematic elements emerge. Each teen gets their own spotlight segment, where they explain what has happened to them, and then take part in some relevant action in the present day. Dominic, for example, tells of his kidnapping and brief time as a child soldier. In the modern day, the camera follows him as he asks a captured LRA sergeant about the fate of his brother.

These scenes all feel too put-on, which is a shame, since each kid’s story is heartbreaking enough on their own that they didn’t really need any help. They relate their experiences in monologues which sound too coached, as if they are reciting lines and not truly opening up. In one sequence, which should have been devastating, Nancy breaks down in hysterics at the grave of her father, falling prostrate to the ground in grief. It works well enough until a cut to a ground level close-up of her face as she weeps. It’s so well-composed, so perfect-looking, that it took me right out of the film. I couldn’t buy it as a true, spontaneous action. If it really did happen as presented, and that suspicious shot was just luck or uncanny skill? Then it still doesn’t feel right. That’s what I mean when I say the doc is almost too beautiful.

And it is a beautiful picture. Not just the visuals, although that is spectacular, with crisp images and vivid colors. The music itself is a thrill to experience. The movie truly grabs you when the kids start playing. Their joy and abandon infuses the frame and flows from it into you. The stern beat of the drums and shimmying plonk of the xylophone, the fluid movement of the namesake dance, all make you understand how these people are able to use this as a vessel to transcend their hardship. It really makes me wish the music was more heavily factored in. I understand the rationale behind the structure; we are supposed to feel similarly to the protagonists, experiencing their pain first so that we can experience their elation the way that they do. If the early stuff had worked better, I’d probably be on board. But it didn’t, I’m not, and… well, here we are.

War Dance falls into what I think of as the “Oscar bait Holocaust movie fallacy:” horrific events are horrific enough on their own that you don’t have to overdo it in presenting them. If the directors had trusted their material more, then this documentary would work brilliantly as a one-two punch of sorrow and hope. They didn’t. They overcompensated. It doesn’t ruin the film, not by a long shot. I’d still highly recommend that you see it. The doc just isn’t as good as it could have been. Which is just another way of saying that it’s “good enough,” but I always want artists to hit the mark that they aim for.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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