By Aaron Hillis
[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).