Documentary filmmaker Sean Fine had to make tough calls as he shot the Oscar-nominated film War/Dance in a refugee camp in war-ravaged northern Uganda. Fine and his crew sped over the perilous road that led to the camp through rebel-controlled bush. They negotiated with officials to get permission to film at all, even to stay in the camp overnight. They carefully built relationships with former child soldiers who, if they chose to, could recount unspeakable atrocities.
But some of the most important calls Fine made were by tenuously connected satellite phone to suburban Washington, D.C., where his wife, partner, and co-director, Andrea Nix Fine ’91, was at their home/office.
"I would climb up this brick wall next to this kind of brothel,” Fine said. “You could get a bar of reception there.”
Fine was on the ground in a remote area near the border with Sudan. Because the couple decided they could neither bring their nine-month-old son, Aidan, nor risk him losing both his parents, Nix Fine stayed home—and considered the film’s bigger picture.
“My responsibility was more, ‘What is the story we’re telling?’” she said. “‘How are we going to do it? Who are we going to talk to? What kinds of things do we want to ask them?’ So we would talk about that every day, because the whole thing about films, I find, is that it’s just an endless chain of decision making.”
In the end, their decisions were the right ones.
War/Dance tells the story of children swept up in the brutal and still-simmering Ugandan civil war. It was shot in Patongo refugee camp, the teeming home to 60,000 people seeking refuge from the Lord’s Resistance Army, a brutal rebel force. Orphans and former LRA child soldiers, most of whom have witnessed or even perpetrated horrific atrocities, are now in the camp schools. They enter a national music contest but must run a dangerous gantlet to reach the competition in Kampala, the capital.
To find out whether they win the contest you have to see the film (now available on DVD), which has been received enthusiastically everywhere it’s been shown. The award-winning husband-and-wife collaboration, the first that had the filmmaking partners physically separated, produced a powerful film about a place and people that is both disturbing and inspiring.
The first Fine Films documentary made for the big screen rather than television, War/Dance garnered top honors from Sundance to Sedona, Philadelphia to Flagstaff. In January the Fines received word that the film was one of five Academy Award nominees for best documentary feature. War/Dance didn’t win, but its reputation spread far and wide.
“You make your film three times.” Once before shooting. Once on location. “And then, when you get back and start working with the editor, then you come up with what the movie is really going to be based on, what’s really happened.”
ANDREA NIX FINE ’91
For a young filmmaker, it’s been a dream come true—managing the flurry of attention and chatting with actor-producer and Darfur activist George Clooney at a luncheon for Oscar nominees in Los Angeles a couple of weeks before the February awards ceremony. But the success of the film is also fulfilling to the person who first put a camera in Andrea Nix Fine’s hands.
“My dream has been that, before I died, I’d see a kid from my class win an Oscar,” said Professor of English Phyllis Mannocchi, who taught Andrea Nix in a documentary filmmaking class Nix’s senior year.
War/Dance came close. And while Mannocchi could not have predicted which of her students would receive the Oscar nomination, she does recall Nix Fine as a very thoughtful student. “You looked at her and you knew she was taking it all in,” Mannocchi said. “She was a philosophy major, and you could tell.”