Wardance / Young At Heart

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They Can Feel It In Their Bones

War Dance
Directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix

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Directed by Stephen Walker

Anyone who ever found solace in any of its myriad forms can testify to the transformative powers of art, and those who do will find something to relate in two seemingly unrelated but thematically similar documentaries.

War Dance introduces us to the Acholi tribe of Northern Uganda, an ethnic group that faces unthinkable violence on a daily basis at the hands of Ugandan president Yoweri Musevini (who has frequently been compared to Uganda’s more infamous despot, Idi Amin). Forced into isolated camps, the greatest burdens are carried by the group’s children, many of whom have been orphaned by the killers that wait in the surrounding bush. The doc’s focus, however, lies with a Uganda-wide music and dance competetition, in which the Acholi children are competing for the first time.

While the performance sections of the film are invigorating enough to keep the proceedings afloat, the approach taken by Fine and Nix in detailing the disturbing pasts of the children in question is problematic. The children are filmed detailing the incidents that most brutally exposed them to violence (one sequence in particular, in which the child must identify his murdered parents, involves nauseating levels of detail), juxtaposed with close-up footage of their pained faces. In the context of a documentary devoted to exploring issues of violence and trauma, it might have been an effective approach, but in a film centered around the childrens’ efforts to advance their singing and dancing, it’s instead a needlessly heavy-handed one. It doesn’t help that the translated versions of their stories seem improbably eloquent.

Stephen Walker’s Young @ Heart faces a similar dilemma, but negotiates a slightly better balance. Walker documents the seven-week rehearsal period of the titular octogenarian choir as they prepare for a series of sold-out concerts, run by the steady hand of choir director Bob Cilman. The obvious charm of the film’s subjects first emerges as they struggle to interpret Cilman’s left-field musical choices (including tracks by Sonic Youth and Talking Heads) and reveal their boundless energy in the face of looming health crises.

It’s Walker himself who comes closest to derailing the film, with his often-insipid narration and irritating editing choices – from the “yee-haw” banjo music that accompanies a road-trip scene to the questionable placement of light-hearted music video sequences directly following a fairly grueling loss. Walker lacks trust in his compelling subjects to carry the film. Nevertheless, they carry it anyway, both with their charm and their fairly incredible performances. In particular, oxygen-deprived baritone Fred Knittle’s lead vocal on Coldplay’s “Fix You” reminds us that a gifted interpreter can transform even the most banal tune into a thing of beauty. Their group take on Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” is similarly revelatory, coaxing a surprising grandeur out of the original’s doomed haze. It’s worth the price of admission alone.
Simon Howell

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