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Beauty Amid Brutality

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In'War/Dance,' Ugandan Children Escape Bleakness with Music

An unusually large chunk of the Sundance 2007 programming, including most of the award winners, focused on international or political themes. Not surprisingly, many of these films had ties inside the Beltway, with a high concentration of public policy elements from the Washington, D.C., area. One of these films was “War/Dance,” directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix Fine, a husband-and-wife team based in Chevy Chase, Md. They cut their teeth at National Geographic making television series such as “World Diary,” “Taboo” and “MegaStructures.”

ThinkFilm picked up “War/Dance,” their first independently produced feature, well before the festival’s opening night. Because the couple didn’t have to worry about making a sale to a distributor, they had more freedom to enjoy the festival compared to their fellow filmmakers in Park City, Utah. Plus, the Fines left with a happy bonus: the Sundance Documentary Directing Award (Independent Film Competition).

The film also pleased the chilled Sundance moviegoers, who embraced the heartwarming tale that finds hope in a place full of everlasting despair. “War/Dance” is a children’s musical set against the backdrop of beautiful landscapes in a brutal war zone of Uganda. When reality is this strange, there’s obviously no need to go to the trouble of making up a fictional screenplay, so the filmmakers just captured what they saw.

Lasting more than 20 years, Uganda’s civil war has torn apart the northern part of the country, wrecking houses and families. In a refugee camp in Patongo, children scrape together a meager existence. But luck changes for three of them: Xylophone player Dominic, singer Rose and dancer Nancy are given the honor of representing Patongo Primary School in a festival of dance and music.

Around this time, the documentary team arrived in Patongo. Their planned storyline was to have focused on the children’s day-to-day lives in the refugee camp, but the trio’s good fortune created a fork in the road diverting the filmmakers’ journey. Thus, “War/Dance” watches the children practice and travel to (and return from) Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, where they face a competition against 20,000 other schools.

The film intersperses this more upbeat, inspirational song-and-dance footage with downers from the children’s testimonials about how they greatly suffered during the war. (For instance, Dominic witnessed atrocities when forced to serve as a child soldier.) In general, the children don’t seem to express a great deal of emotion when they recount their past experiences. Perhaps they’ve been numbed to detach themselves from the pain, allowing them to continue living.

Likewise, such revelations may not seem so shocking to an educated viewer who has already repeatedly, and recently, heard similar accounts about the horrors of war. The sense of detachment may also stem from the film’s style. In fact, the documentary seems to take a step back and maintain a fair distance, allowing the camera and the viewer to observe from afar.

Low-budget filmmakers have frequently turned to smaller, simpler gear, and with digital video’s ease of use, a whole new generation overlooked its visual shortcomings to get their movies made. Likewise, modern audiences grew accustomed to viewing serious documentaries with lower quality images, often with shaky handheld camerawork.

It wasn’t until recently that the quality of digital video approached the clarity and brightness of film. Beautifully shot in in high definition, “War/Dance” looks so glossy that it’s almost too perfect to be real. The result is rather dreamy, an appropriate atmosphere for the children’s scenario, which can only be described as the fulfillment of a dream—a dream that offers them chance to escape their lot in life, at least temporarily, as the holiday provides them with hope that the bleakness doesn’t have to be perpetual.

War/Dance (English; 105 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Nov. 16

4 out of 5 stars

My Kid Could Paint That

“My Kid Could Paint That” gathered plenty of attention at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival. Shot in high definition, the cinematography looks sharp—very appropriate for a film that raises questions about the value of art. Director Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary elegantly presents the intriguing story of Marla Olmstead, a controversial 4-year-old painter.

Marla gathered fame as a prodigy whose abstract paintings were hung in art galleries, starting with a family friend’s gallery. Eventually, Marla was covered by the New York Times, opening the floodgates of national publicity. Her paintings sold for hundreds of dollars, then thousands—up to ,000. People dismissive of abstract art would make quips like, “My kid could paint that.”

Trained eyes, however, found this scenario quite unlikely. The art world seemed to reach some consensus that her talents were indeed far more advanced than that of even a fluke 4-year-old. So the hanging question is: Did Marla paint these works herself?

“60 Minutes” came to the Olmstead home in Binghamton, N.Y., to do a story. A hidden camera showed Marla beginning a new work, following whispered instructions from her father (which he later claimed was an anomaly, not a regular process). The result, something that indeed looked like what a talented kid could paint, was nevertheless not up to par with Marla’s paintings that had been made public.

The “60 Minutes” piece fueled the controversy raging through the art world. Sales plummeted, perpetuated by negative stories from the same press that made her a star. Even if Marla didn’t paint her well-regarded works completely alone, does that make them any less valuable? Another video was created showing Marla painting a work from start to finish. Yet the result still didn’t seem quite up to snuff, even to the director.

Bar-Lev had grown quite close to the Olmstead family during filming of his documentary, putting him in the precarious position of potentially finding solid evidence that would out them. But that doesn’t happen, leaving viewers to make their own decisions. Still, Bar-Lev’s dilemma raises questions about whether a documentary filmmaker should be so close to his subjects, actively influencing their lives and actions, versus remaining an objective observer maintaining a safe distance.

My Kid Could Paint That (English; 83 min.) Opens Fri., Nov. 2

3.5 out of 5 stars

Shorts for Cineastes

I first recall watching the “The Red Balloon” projected in a classroom during my childhood. Much later, as a budding cineaste, I learned that the classic 1956 children’s film wasn’t just for kids. For “The Red Balloon,” French director Albert Lamorisse won the Palme d’Or for court métrage (short film) at Cannes.

The story is quite simple. There’s basically no dialogue. Yet Lamorisse also brought home, across the North American continent and the Atlantic Ocean, the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. “The Red Balloon” was a historical anomaly—the one time that a short won a feature category—and it’s acclaimed by many as the most important short of all time.

A 6-year-old schoolboy (Pascal Lamorisse, the director’s son) follows a big, bright red balloon as it moves around a neighborhood in Paris (25,000 red balloons were used during the shoot). The lively balloon is a main character who becomes the boy’s friend. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like much, but it’s all about the execution. The beautiful result is pure enchantment, leaving memories of the balloon’s vivid red movements in the viewer’s mind forever.

“The Red Balloon” is currently screening with “White Mane,” Lamorisse’s earlier film that won the Grand Prix for short film at Cannes. The crisp black-and-white photography captures memorable images of exciting action that takes place in Provence’s ragged Camargue area, where cowboys go after wild horses. But the leader of the horses, dubbed White Mane, always escapes the grasp of the cowpokes. Young fisherman Alain Emery grows to love White Mane, enough to be able to tame the creature thought to be untamable.

The Red Balloon (Le Ballon Rouge) (No dialogue; 34 min.)

White Mane (Crin-Blanc) (English and French; 40 min.) Landmark’s E Street Cinema Opens Fri., Nov. 23

4.5 out of 5 stars

Repertory Notes

Please see International Film Clips for detailed listings available at press time.

National Gallery of Art Bucharest Stories: New Films from Romania (Nov. 16-Dec. 30) Romanian cinema is hot these days! The 2007 Cannes Film Festival awarded the coveted Palme d’Or to Cristian Mungiu for “4 Months, 3 Weeks, and 2 Days.” (Unfortunately, that isn’t part of this series of 10 programs of features and shorts curated by the National Gallery with help from the Romanian Cultural Institute and the Embassy of Romania.) In the last decade, a new wave of Romanian directors has made a lasting mark on the international festival circuit. The young Turks (figuratively) from Bucharest include Corneliu Porumboiu, Cristian Nemescu, Catalin Mitulescu and Cristi Puiu. According to the National Gallery: “Defining features include a matter-of-fact realism, accomplished casting and composition, and a generous bit of Balkan surrealism.” (202) 842-6799, www.nga.gov/programs/film.shtm

National Museum of Women in the Arts WACK! Art and the Feminist Revolution (through Dec. 16) The National Museum of Women in the Arts proudly presents the “first comprehensive exhibition to explore the formation, development, and impact of feminism in post-war contemporary art, 1965 to 1980.” Foreign films accompanying the exhibit include: Chantal Akerman’s “Jeanne Dielman” (Nov. 5; Belgium), Yvonne Rainer’s “Lives of Performers” (Nov. 6; West Germany) and Ulrike Ottinger’s “Madame X” (Nov. 29), as well as the Berwick Street Film Collective’s “Nightcleaners” (Nov. 13; U.K.). (202) 783-7370, www.nmwa.org/calendar/index.asp?Activity=Fil

Freer Gallery of Art and AFI Silver Theatre A Man Vanishes: The Legacy of Shohei Imamura According to the Freer: “A leading figure of postwar Japanese film, [Shohei] Imamura was an insightful, creative artist with a near-scientific interest in Japanese culture and society. His flair for depicting the human condition in both audacious and entertaining ways is legendary.” After many years, the master is back with a joint retrospective from the Freer (Nov.16-30) and AFI Silver (Nov. 22-Dec.27)—in conjunction with the Northwest Film Forum (co-organizer), the Japan Foundation, Imamura Productions, Janus Films and others. (202) 357-2700, www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp (301) 495-6700, www.afi.com/Silver

Goethe-Institut Silent Movies: German Cinema from the Library of Congress (Nov. 12 to 26) Timed with the release of the new book “Silent Movies: The Birth of Film and the Triumph of Movie Culture,” co-published and illustrated by the Library of Congress, the series features Paul Leni and Leopold Jessne’s “Backstairs (Hintertreppe)”; E.A. Dupont’s “Variety” (Nov. 12); F.W. Murnau’s “Tartuffe” (Nov. 19); and Joe May’s “Asphalt” (Nov. 26). (202) 289-1200, www.goethe.de/ins/us/was/kue/flm/enindex.htm

About the Author

Ky N. Nguyen is the film reviewer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999