This week, we at IDA are introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 17-23. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.
So, to continue this series of conversations, here are Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, directors of War/Dance.
Synopsis: Set in Northern Uganda, a country ravaged by more than two decades of civil war, War/Dance tells the story of three children whose families have been torn apart and who currently reside in a displaced persons camp in Patongo. When they are invited to compete in a music and dance festival, their historic journey to their nation's capital becomes an opportunity to regain part of their childhood and taste victory for the first time in their lives.
IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?
Sean Fine: I grew up in a family that made documentary films. My father was a cinematographer/director and my mother was an editor/director. I was always around my parents' work, playing with the Steinbeck or making action figures out of my father's Arriflex magazine cores. During an NYU summer film course, I remember leaving the editing room for my final project at 4:00 a.m., having worked 48 hours straight, and thinking, I have to do this; it is so much fun. After college I started working at National Geographic and within a year, I was directing my first documentary, which won two national Emmys. National Geographic helped me hone a very important skill: how to get the shot the first time in the toughest of locations cinematically.
Andrea Nix Fine: My desire to become a filmmaker started in college. One of my professors suggested making a documentary film in place of a written term paper. I remember after the first day of shooting thinking to myself, This is what I want to do in life. A passion began that fueled my determination to make films. After college I took numerous jobs, trying to learn as much as I could about filmmaking. I worked in a post-production house as a sound person and an assistant cameraperson. Then I moved to Washington, DC, to work at National Geographic. Within three years I was producing my own films and traveling all over the world. In my films I have endured sub-zero temperatures in the Arctic Circle, croc-infested waters in Costa Rica and eccentric Neapolitan musicians who work in a Fiat factory. I love that making documentaries opens a rare and privileged door into the lives of others.
IDA: What inspired you to make War/Dance?
SF and ANF: The inspiration for War/Dance came from an opportunity to shed light on a horrific situation. When we received a call from a nonprofit organization, Shine Global, about making a film to raise awareness about a civil war in Northern Uganda that has created one of the worst child soldier situations in the world, our initial response was, What war? After looking into the subject, we could not believe that we had not heard about this war and that it was not something that was plastered over the front pages of every newspaper in the country. A 20-year-old war where rebels have abducted over 30,000 children--we just could not believe it. We wanted to put faces, names and stories to these horrible statistics.
We decided that the best way to do this was to shoot a film told entirely by those who suffered the most in this war: the children. No experts, no adults--just the children telling their own stories. Once in the field it became quickly apparent that this was much more than a film about the traumas of war, but a film about hope and the healing power of music and dance. The children we were meeting were so resilient and strong that we felt their stories were bigger than life. We put all our effort and skill to do justice to the epic nature of the children's stories.
IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?
SF and ANF: There are a lot of challenges when trying to make a film like this. On the one hand, you have the danger element of filming in a war zone with a three-to-four- person crew:
unmonitored, ever-present rebel activity ranging from abduction to bloody ambushes. And there's the health risk of living in one of the most cut-off refugee camps in Uganda--a place where overcrowding has led to dysentery, cholera and malaria that take a thousand lives per week in these displacement camps.
On the other hand, we faced the challenge of telling the story of the effects of war on children in an entirely new way. We decided that to make the most impact we wanted to tell a story through the children's eyes--neither adult nor narrator would interpret the kids experiences, just the children's own voices, in their own language. To achieve the level of intimacy needed, we decided to live in the camp during the entire production, which went against military law in Northern Uganda. We had to live in Patongo displacement camp so the people and, more importantly, the children in the film could get to know us. We wanted the children to feel comfortable with us and safe. To make the children's stories the most powerful, we wanted a very direct line of communication between the children and the audience--from interviews, where the kids are looking directly into the lens, to having the camera only feet away during some of their most emotional moments. We wanted the film to touch people, to bridge the distance between the audience and people they think they have nothing in common with. To us, human connection is the most powerful tool to evoke change.
IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?
SF and ANF: In some ways we told this story the way we always intoned, but in other ways the story completely changed. From the beginning we wanted to tell the story of three to
four children in their own voices who had been affected by the war in Northern Uganda, but that is the only thing that did not change. We arrived in Northern Uganda to do a scout and shoot some footage to raise production funds. One week into the scout, we heard about Patongo IDP camp possibly competing in a music contest. We immediately traveled to the camp and decided this was our story. The scout became the shoot.
The most remarkable transformations occurred in post-production, when the children's previously paraphrased interviews were translated word for word. We were inspired by the maturity and power of their answers. All of a sudden, scenes that we were not going to use started to make more sense. For example, there is a scene where one of the three characters, a former child soldier named Dominic, confronts a captured rebel commander about the whereabouts of his abducted brother. While filming the scene, we didn't interrupt their conversation for translation. Only when we got home did we realize that Dominic's questioning about his brother soon turned to questioning about why rebels abduct children. We could not believe that this little boy sitting next to a rebel would have the courage to be asking these types of questions. As the translations came in, the poignancy in all three characters surprised us again and again and helped to shape many of the scenes in the film.
IDA: As you've screened War/Dance--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?
SF and ANF: Our very first public screening of the film was at Sundance. The credit roll ends with an epilogue about how the kids are doing now. As soon as the first child's face came back on the screen, the crowd exploded in a standing ovation. From that moment on, we knew the audience had connected with the kids. People have told us that even days after they have seen film they cannot get the children in the film out of their heads.
Most festivals that War/Dance has shown in have had special screenings for high school students, and these were some of the most surprising screenings. We didn't expect that War/Dance would hold the attention or maybe connect with a younger audience. We were completely wrong; we have received many letters and e-mails from high school kids thanking us for making the film and asking how they can get involved in helping in Northern Uganda. Also, the question and answer sessions with kids have been some of the best.
IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?
SF and ANF: Sean's parents being filmmakers have probably been his biggest inspiration. They not only taught him documentary filmmaking technique, but taught him that making
documentaries is more than getting the shot or making the right edit; it is about people--listening to people and opening your heart and mind to their stories.
Other documentary filmmakers who have inspired us have been Errol Morris and Michael Apted.
In addition, we are inspired by the visual power of fictional films used to tell great stories. Directors like Michael Mann, Terrence Malick, Ridley Scott, and Jane Campion--people who create a "feel" or mood in their work.
War/Dance is screening at the ArcLight Hollywood.
To view the entire DocuWeekTM program, visit: http://www.documentary.org/programs/docuweek_07.php
To download and view the DocuWeekTM schedule at the ArcLight Hollywood, visit: http://www.documentary.org/programs/DW/2007/DocuWeek-2007_A-H.pdf
To purchase tickets to DocuWeekTM at the ArcLight Hollywood, visit: http://www.arclightcinemas.com/