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Artistic expression persists in northern Uganda in spite of the rebel barbarism that has pushed hundreds of thousands of people into refugee camps. Likewise, filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine continue the Hollywood insult of looking at Africa as if it were a high-fashion runway. This is an unfortunate documentary experience, but it is the segments that fall to the left of the slash in the film’s title that are most infuriating. The Fines, a couple with extensive experience writing and directing films for National Geographic, wildly aestheticize the African landscape, propping children in neon-green fields and asking them to relate the horrors rebels committed against their families. Their emotions may not be scripted, but the way the words of these children are organized suggest they’ve been forced to read from cue cards. Worse are the Fines’ obscene close-ups of black faces, especially throughout ominously-scored bits that loosely recreate the memories of the documentary’s subjects, suggesting images of stalking animals familiar from so many National Geographic specials. It becomes impossible to consider the emotional and spiritual reasons why these children shed tears because the Fines would rather have us ponder the many splendiferous ways a tear can make its way across the human face, or the striking angles from which you can shoot a third-world hut. Tragedy in War/Dance is aesthetically rather than emotionally assessed, which is to say this Sundance-approved doc is unbelievably phony. To be fair, though, since the filmmakers have no control over the outcome of the National Music Competition that takes the students of Patongo Primary School for the first time to Kampala, the portions that focus on young ones like 14-year-old xylophone player Dominic healing their demons through their music feel spontaneous. The film builds to the arresting Buola dance performance the children of Patongo give before an excited crowd that is impressed by their talent and resilience, but the Fines cannot resist engaging the rhetoric of contrived Disney underdog dramas and documentaries like Spellbound when shooting the buildup to the final award ceremony. From beginning to end, the film is pandering—which is to say, campaigning for Oscar.

105 min
Sean Fine, Andrea Nix Fine

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