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The Directors of “War Dance”

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By Aaron Hillis

IFC News

[Photos: Left, “War Dance”; below, directors Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine, ThinkFilm, 2007]

Between the two of them, filmmakers Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine have written, produced and shot documentaries in over 30 countries and for outlets like National Geographic, ABC News Frontline and The Discovery Channel. But it wasn’t until “War Dance” (now without the slash between the words as it was titled on the festival circuit) that the married couple had ever directed their own feature together, for which they won the Directing Award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Gorgeously photographed and emotionally charged, “War Dance” focuses on three children from the Patongo refugee camp in northern Uganda, a dangerous war zone where kids have been abducted and either sold into sexual slavery or brainwashed into becoming rebel soldiers for the past 20 years. Though theirs is a story as heartbreaking as the countless acts of genocide and other African atrocities we’re only now starting to pay attention to, the film seeks out a nugget of hope and peace within all the chaos: Over 20,000 schools across Uganda compete in the annual National Music Competition, and while no one ever expects schools in refugee camps to excel in these singing, instrumental and dancing contests, this year’s young underdogs from Patongo may prove more resilient than anyone would have guessed. I chatted with the Fines about their first marital collaboration and their moral responsibilities.

I make films with my wife, so I know it can be tough finding the balance between a professionally creative and a personal relationship. How do you keep those dynamics separate?

ANDREA: It’s funny because so many people actually say to me, “Oh my god, I would never work with my husband.” We get that all the time. It’s an involving process, but I wouldn’t want to work with anybody else.

SEAN: I think we’re also different from some husband-and-wife teams, at least that we’ve worked with in the past. Sometimes they’ll have separate roles. We pretty much co-direct, 50/50, down the middle, collaborating on everything. When we’re in the edit room, sometimes Andrea will take a scene, I’ll work on the next one, and then when Andrea’s done, I’ll see it with fresh eyes. It creates this great discussion, and vice versa, that makes things flow well. On this film, it was really different because we had to work in a war zone. Our son was a year old at the time that I left for Uganda, so we decided we weren’t going to be in the field together at the same time. Northern Uganda is such a difficult place to work. I had malaria, we were working under the constant threat of war, and child soldiers are cutting people up. Listening to horrible stories and living in an internally displaced camp has a lot of day-to-day difficulties. I was mentally and physically exhausted. At 3 o’clock in the morning, I’d go to the only place where my cell phone would work, a brick wall next to the local brothel. By balancing on this wall, I could get one cell phone bar and talk for five minutes. Then it cuts out, and I have to call again. But just to have that one person who understands me, understands exactly what I’m talking about, trying to figure out how a scene is going to fit into the bigger picture of the film, was immensely helpful.

I appreciate all that, but come on. You can’t tell me you don’t occasionally bicker.

A: Oh yeah, I mean we [want to] kill each other sometimes.

S: Even, for example, over the style of the film for the kids to look into the camera. That evolved from an argument on the phone because Andrea said that it would make this more personal. I was like, “That’s crazy. I don’t want to do that. No way. That’ll never work.” We didn’t have the whole Errol Morris setup where, you know, we’re in a different space and they’re looking into the monitor. We just had them look into the camera, which actually, made them open up more. I was completely wrong. So we do get into arguments, but you kind of get away from that and realize: “Hey, that person had a good idea.”

A: We didn’t work together until we were married. We met at National Geographic, and because we both wanted to do our own thing, we made a conscious effort to show up on an even playing field. You sort of get the kinks out about how you [work]. At the end of the day, I feel like making documentaries is just an endless chain of decisions. You have a fork in the road; do you follow this character or that character? It’s really amazing to have a sounding board, but we’re also hard on each other’s work sometimes. When we screen each other’s scenes, because we know each other so well, there’s no veneer: “Well, I don’t think that works.” But our aesthetic is very similar. We’ll be watching a film trailer or whatever, and we’ll both sit up at the same shot.

“War Dance” makes stunning use of what HD cameras can do, but the shared aesthetic you speak of holds a moral complexity, too. For example, the scene with young Nancy crying over her father’s gravestone: Did you have any hesitation to stop shooting, that perhaps this extremely vulnerable moment shouldn’t be a “pretty” image shown to general audiences?

S: Yeah. I actually went with Nancy and her mother to film them looking at their old home. It’s right next to the grave, all overgrown with weeds. Their discovery of that grave is pretty much my discovery of it. I didn’t realize Nancy was going to have that response. Here’s a little girl who, throughout the whole film, she’s a rock. She takes care of her siblings, feeds them, pulls pranks on me and jokes with us. She’s never shed a tear the entire time filming, and then she just loses it. I’ve filmed awful things, like somebody dying, but to see a small child emotionally gutted was probably the most difficult thing I’ve ever filmed. I can see in my shooting where I get uncomfortable and start to shake. The camera moves farther and farther back. I waved everyone else off. It was just me and the sound man, and I’m thinking the whole time, I shouldn’t be here. It went on for two hours.

Then the other half of me was like, I have to be here if we’re going to do right by these kids. This might be the one time where you see the complexity unfold right in front of us. You see her [traumatic reaction], but you also see a parent having to deal with her child. This mother has taken her daughter to a place where she buried her father in pieces by herself. No one thinks about the mom, what she’s going through, and at the same time, [having to] explain to her daughter how and why this happened. She can’t. How do you comfort a young daughter like that? So for those reasons, I think we had to hang in there. It was that golden hour, towards the end of the day. I hope this isn’t taken the wrong way, but there is a beauty in something so raw like that.

What do you expect people to take away from this film?

S: I want people to pay attention to northern Uganda. I want people to ask, “20 years? Why is nobody doing anything about this? Why isn’t anyone reporting on this? Why don’t I know about this? Why haven’t I seen this on the internet?” I also want a bigger question asked: “What is my responsibility as a human being to keep tabs on all of these things going around the world?” Children are being exploited and hurt, and it’s not going to stop unless people get their voice into it. When people get upset, things happen. I don’t want people to think, “Oh yeah, that stuff happens in Africa all the time. They’re kind of used to it. That’s how they live. They’re starving or they’ve been affected by war, or a lot of Africans have HIV, and they’re just used to living with that.” I want them to say, “Those kids are a lot like me when I was a kid. They’re just trying to live their life and be normal kids. It’s atrocious that this is happening.” These kids are sharing their story with you, putting it in your face. Yes, we made this, but it’s their story and I feel privileged to have been part of that. I want people to think about Dominic, Rose and Nancy. Where are they? What’s going on with them? I want those three names to seep into people’s souls so they can’t forget about them.

But is that enough, just knowing about and getting riled up by these tragedies? What should people do proactively once they’ve thrown away their Coke products, left the air conditioned theater, and entered right back into their familiar comfort zones?

A: I think they can tell everybody to go see the film. A big portion of the [box office] proceeds is going back to help Shine Global, the non-profit that backed the film. Just by going to the film, you’re helping. The funds go to everything from healthcare for kids in the war to rehabilitating kids that were child soldiers, and helping kids in crisis deal with trauma. Then at the end of the film, there’s a list of websites saying, “Hey, you want to find out more and help further, here are some other ways to keep informed.” Ask [yourself] why you didn’t know about this before.

S: Raise a ruckus and try to stay aware. I didn’t know about this before I was approached by it, and I’m ashamed to say that. You have to step outside your comfort level. That means going to see films like this or “Darfur Now.” I think documentaries are capturing things that news doesn’t. That’s a new trend, and a really exciting one.

“War Dance” opens in New York and L.A. on November 9th (official site).


Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.


Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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GIFs via Giphy

Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:


The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.


They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!


Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.


Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.