Connecticut College Magazine · Winter 2008

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Filmmakers Sean Fine ´96 and his wife Andrea earned an Academy Award nomination for their powerful documentary, but they want audiences to focus on the children of war-torn northern Uganda.

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"War/Dance" triumphs

"War/Dance"  triumphs

"Harrowing" is the word filmmaker Sean Fine ´96 uses to describe a three-hour ride through rebel territory to a remote refugee camp in northern Uganda.


“We were driving 80-100 mph on narrow dirt roads so we wouldn´t be ambushed by the rebels, who hide out in the elephant grass with machetes and AK-47s.” He and his crew — a sound person, security advisor and a co-producer — arrived safely at the camp and were overwhelmed by the squalor, crowded conditions and disease they found there. “It hit me in the gut,” says Fine. But despite the poverty of their environment, the children there were singing, dancing and smiling. “It was just magical. Those kids got into our hearts right away.”

When Fine and his wife, Andrea Nix Fine, were approached by nonprofit production company Shine Global about doing a film on the child soldier situation in northern Uganda, their response was, “What child soldier situation?” But after the couple researched the subject, they were shocked they had never heard of the atrocities. “A 20-year-old war where rebels have abducted over 30,000 children that wasn´t making news? We just could not believe it,” says Fine.

For 20 years, a messianic rebel group called the Lord´s Resistance Army has terrorized the people of northern Uganda, kidnapping children — some as young as 5 — at gunpoint. The boys become soldiers; the girls are forced into sexual slavery. Some 90 percent of the Acholi people of northern Uganda live in government-protected camps, but they are still under the threat of rebel attacks.

The Fines, co-owners of the Washington, D.C.-based Fine Films, found inspiration in the opportunity to shed light on this horrific situation. “We did not want to make a typical African war film,” says Fine. Instead, they opted to tell the story through the eyes of the war´s greatest victims: the children. “War/Dance,” released last fall to theaters across the nation, focuses on Dominic, 13, Rose, 14, and Nancy, 14, who amidst the horror of life in one of Uganda´s most remote refugee camps find hope and meaning in music and dance.

In 2005, Fine traveled to Uganda to begin work on the film. He heard of a national music competition and learned that students from the primary school in the Patonga Internally Displaced Persons camp were planning to compete. Though his translator told him the camp was very dangerous — “even the NGOs don´t go there” — Fine knew he had to take the risk. “We decided that we really had to go out there, because in this place, kids haven´t had a chance to tell their story,” Fine said in an article in the November/December issue of Mother Jones.

Though there is no electricity, no running water and no safe place in the camp, the children were feverishly preparing for the competition. Music and dance, the tribal songs of their ancestors, transport the children to a time without war, says Fine. “Singing and dancing make them forget. That´s what was so fascinating about the film,” he says. “It´s the power of music and art to heal people.”

“In my heart, I am more than a child of war,” Nancy says in the film, and Fine agrees, “These kids have endured horrible things, but they don´t live like victims. They don´t let their experiences define them.”

Fine and his crew lived in the camp for three months. Though they had no encounters with rebels, the violence was never far away. A few days before the crew left, a truck full of children was ambushed outside the camp. At one point, the rebels expressed interest in meeting Fine and his crew. They declined. “It felt too much like a set-up.”

The best part of the experience for Fine was accompanying the children on the two-day bus ride to the capital city of Kampala for the competition. Most of the children had never been out of the camp before, says Fine, and the peacefulness of Kampala´s soldier-free streets was new to them. “Feeling their enthusiasm and experiencing their highs and lows, it was just fantastic.”

The hardest part of being in the field (a bout with malaria notwithstanding) was being away from his family. Nix Fine, who had just delivered the couple´s second son, did not accompany her husband to Uganda, but the two talked on the phone every day. “The only place I could get cell reception was on top of this brick wall that was part of a brothel,” says Fine. While her husband was immersed in the day-to-day business of shooting the film, Nix Fine was able to see the “big picture” through their daily conversations. “She was very much a part of the shooting of the film,” says Fine.

The son of documentary filmmakers, Fine knew from an early age that he wanted to be behind the camera. He designed his own major in zoology and filmmaking at Connecticut College and credits Janis Solomon, now Lucretia L. Allyn Professor Emeritus of German and Director of Film Studies Program, and Ted Hendrickson, associate professor of art, with helping him find his niche. “I was so grateful that they encouraged me to pursue my interests. I wasn´t squashed because I didn´t fit the mold. I had freedom,” he says.

Hendrickson recalls Fine´s “fine eye for composition and detail,” and Solomon remembers a documentary, “Silent Friends,” Fine made as an independent study project. “It was a sensitive portrait of the woman who ran The Owl´s Barn, a shop overflowing with collectibles. … [It was] local color at its best,” she says.

After graduation, Fine went on to direct and shoot several documentary series for National Geographic, including “World Diaries,” “Lockdown” and “Taboo.” He received an Emmy for his documentary “The Pigeon Murders” in 2000. Nix Fine had produced, directed and wrote films for National Geographic in such remote locations as Greenland and Botswana. The two formed Fine Films in 2003, the same year they were married. In 2004, they produced, directed and shot “True Dads with Bruce Willis,” a two-hour documentary exploring fatherhood in America.

“War/Dance” has won many accolades, including an Academy Award nomination and the directing award in the documentary category at the Sundance Film Festival, but Fine insists that awards are not what drive him and his wife. “Winning feels great, but we really just love making films. We love a great story,” he says. “When 400 people stand up and clap for three children, it is so powerful. That is why we do what we do.”

Proceeds from ticket sales for the film will go to NGOs working on the ground in northern Uganda. There is also a scholarship fund set up to help the children of Patongo. For more information, visit www.wardancethemovie.com.


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