A government soldier watches as students practice. The students live in a refugee camp where they are protected from rebel forces in northern Uganda.
Sean Fine took the three-person crew to Uganda in 2005. He scouted locations with a translator named Jimmy Otim. They looked at schools in Gulu, 80 miles to the west, but Fine wasn’t inspired. “Jimmy said, ‘There is one other place that might be going [to the music competition], but I don’t think you want to go there. It’s the most dangerous place. No nongovernmental organizations or aid groups really go out there.’”
The place was Patongo. That it was out of bounds was all Sean Fine needed to hear.
The approach to the Patongo camp is through rebel territory via a narrow dirt road walled by 12-foot-high elephant grass. Motorists, including the filmmakers, blast down the road at nearly 100 miles per hour, hoping to make it to the relative safety of the camp, which is defended by government soldiers.
“You drive through the camp and it’s just awful conditions. ... And then you see these kids dancing under this tree. How could this exist in this place? As soon as I saw them and you could feel their energy, I said, ‘This is the place.’”
“You’re driving that fast to avoid an ambush, which would basically be the rebels jumping out of the grass and machine-gunning your car,” Fine said. “When I talk about rebels, I’m talking about kids. The reason it’s so dangerous is that, if you get ambushed or you run into the rebels, they’re not asking for money. They’re not trying to steal anything from you. They’re just trying to create the most chaos they can, which involves killing you in a pretty graphic, gruesome way.”
And the Lord’s Resistance Army, headed by a messianic leader named Joseph Kony, has a knack for violence bordering on incomprehensible. One girl profiled in the film was forced to watch as her parents were killed, dismembered, and cooked in a pot. A young boy was forced to kill his mother in order to save his siblings. “All of them have somebody killed in their family or somebody abducted,” Fine said. “It’s [as normal as] having a brother or sister.”
Yet the filmmakers found the Patongo camp to have, at its core, a resilient sense of joy.
“I still remember the day we drove up,” Fine said. “You drive through this really dangerous territory and then you drive through the camp, and it’s just awful conditions all around you. And then you see these kids dancing under this tree. You kind of think to yourself, how could this exist in this place? As soon as I saw them and you could feel their energy, I said, ‘This is the place.’”
Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine ’91 on the red carpet prior to the Academy Awards in February. Their film, War/Dance, was one of five nominated in the category documentary features.
The long-distance collaboration began.
The crew shot during the day and the Fines conferred at night. “We just took on different roles,” Nix Fine said. “Sean had to really deal with the physical challenges of being in that camp—being sick, trying to figure out the food situation—and the bureaucracy.”
“People think all the glory is being out there,” her husband said, “and the filmmaking is being out there. But it’s not. It’s thinking about it. It’s thinking about the story, the structure. Andrea was doing that on a daily basis.”
Sean Fine coped with a serious case of malaria. He and the crew were stopped on the road late one night by soldiers who stuck grenade launchers through the window of the car. A half hour of frantic shouting determined the soldiers were from the government.
Back at home, Nix Fine worried. “All the time,” she said.
She noted that arrangements had been made with a helicopter service on the border so the crew could be pulled out in an emergency.
After six weeks the crew left Patongo. Conferring with MacLaury, Hecht, and others, Andrea and Sean Fine hunkered down in their editing room in Chevy Chase. How would the film be structured? What got used and what was cut out? What was the best way to tell the children’s stories?
“You make your film three times,” Nix Fine said. 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.”
Hours of footage were cut to 65 minutes. The order was shuffled and reshuffled. Scenes fell off and then were pulled back in. Finally the team decided that the film needed more of the kids’ day-to-day life.