Last night I saw a marvelous movie, a documentary called War/Dance.
In 2005, a group of kids from a primary school in Northern Uganda went to a national dance competition in Kampala. Which in and of itself may leave you going "So?"
But if you've been reading this blog for a few years, you might recall me referring to the situation north of Murchison Falls. Or maybe you've read of the peace negotiations happening between the LRA ("Lord's Resistance Army") and the Ugandan government. You might remember when a Ugandan friend's father lost his life to the LRA, or when the owner of the lodge at the center of the park I was staying in was shot by rebels. Both of these events also occurred in 2005.
One striking thing about War/Dance is how adeptly it contrasts brilliant green landscapes and gorgeous sunsets with tales of brutality, murder, and abduction. Night is when the LRA strikes, and so the sunset—such an innocuous thing of beauty to us—is a herald of yet another night of fear to villagers in rebel-harassed regions. The closest the filmmakers get to explaining the rebel's actions is when one of the kids goes to interview an imprisoned rebel. The kid is looking for his abducted brother, but he cannot stop himself from asking "Why?"
Another contrast is between the kids in their zombie-like states when they talk about the atrocities they've seen versus their huge smiles as they perform. Their instructors force them to smile. "Mood! Mood! Mood!" And they do smile, and then their moods become real, bringing these victims of trauma back to life, leaving behind their despair. Emotions long suppressed bubble up. One even says that he is "excited to see what peace looks like" as they set off for Kampala.
The challenges these kids have faced perhaps make their anxiety about the competition easier to endure, but also encourages them to work harder. They have more to prove.
And they succeed. They all pile onto the back of Isuzu trucks, travel under military escort down red-dirt roads towards the Ugandan capital, and they perform beautifully, triumphantly, at the National Theatre in front of their skeptical southern counterparts.
Northern Uganda is not just about war. There are people there too, people living their lives and aspiring to dreams in spite of nightly terror. They may be living in fear, but they are not only about fear. They too can dance, live, and marvel at the sight of sand on the shores of Lake Victoria. The children return home, changed but not changed, going back to the same situations they left behind. But they also have hope and ambition. War/Dance is based in a tragic environment, but ultimately it's an extraordinarily hopeful film.