British poet W. H. Auden once declared, “Poetry makes nothing happen.” A prolific writer, Auden’s pen was fast at work commenting on many religious, political and psychological subjects of his time.  He also worked on documentary films  – I wonder if he felt the same apathy towards his cinematic work?  In Auden’s time, content was controlled by a privileged few. Documentary footage replete with shocking visual imagery of wars abroad had the potential to confront its audience and demand awareness just through its visceral nature.  The act of witnessing was sometimes enough. However, in our current climate of media saturation, viewers are bombarded with layers of static and moving imagery and frenetic aural soundtracks.  The rise of citizen media, where every citizen is a reporter , means that content creation has moved from one to many, to many to many.   The power to create is well within most North American’s reach, dependant on access to a cheap video camera or cell phone and an Internet connection.  With a glut of media images literally produced by anyone, how can today’s audiences discern between what to care about and when to change the channel?  Even more so, the images we see, the news we read or watch is filled with gruesome headlines – the common news desks adage still declaring, “If it bleeds, it leads.”  Of course, our fascination with the gruesome throughout our visual culture is not new. Baudelaire, a 19th Century French poet and critic, wrote in his journal:

It is impossible to glance through any newspaper, no matter what the day, the month or the year, without finding on every line the most frightful traces of human perversity…every newspaper, from the first line to the last, is nothing but a tissue of horrors.  Wars, crimes, thefts, lecheries, tortures, the evil deeds of princes, of nations, of private individuals; an orgy of universal atrocity.  And it is with this loathsome appetizer that civilized man daily washed down his morning repast.

Baudelaire would find it almost impossible to keep down his breakfast with today’s sensory overload as what has changed since his time is the intensity and temporality of the images – the speed and access of delivery and consummation.  However, innovative production, distribution and delivery methods can have a positive effect on the consumption of ideas, stories and facts and even address the challenge of creating change.   This paper will explore the power of documentary filmmaking to actually create change in a climate of compassion fatigue.  In particular, War Dance – a performative documentary about children of war in Northern Uganda, breaks through this current haze of North American apathy because of it’s innovative use of production and funding techniques as well as the creative use of the documentary form to implement layers of change at the ground level in these children’s lives.

Image-makers understand the power of representation in trauma and have advanced the idea of documentary reporting as a mere assemblage of documents into an artistic form.  Aaron Kerner aptly describes the artistic function of representing the catastrophic in his book, Representing the Catastrophic: Coming to Terms with “Unimaginable” Suffering and “Incomprehensible” Horror in Visual Culture.  He suggests that, “…we need to draw upon artistic practices, and to use a vast array of devices – colour, musicality, rhythm, light, harmony – to depict the abject nature of the catastrophic event.  Considering that it is the form of signification that demands most of our attention, aesthetics then plays a significant role in representing the catastrophic.”    War Dance, the first documentary feature film for television producers Andrea Nix and Sean Fine manages to present the lives of three Northern Ugandan children: Rose, Dominic and Nancy, in a sublime way.   Perhaps it’s odd to equate a child’s suffering to the sublime but the re-telling of their lives while captured in a visually stunning manner is the strength of the film and has its merits.  If channeled appropriately (i.e., away from violence, and channeled into artistic practices), a representation of abjection can act as a thoroughfare to the sublime.    The sublime might well be accompanied by a sense of awe, or even fear, but nevertheless, an encounter of the sublime (via the abject) might be associated with the liberating, and explosive release of psychic tension.

War Dance follows Rose, Dominic and Nancy as they live in a displacement camp within their own country. All of their parents, with the exception of Nancy’s Mum, are dead – fallen prey to the Lord’s Resistance Army.   But Rose, Dominic and Nancy are more than just children of war.  As Rose points out, “I want to be known for my singing.”  The three children, as well as their fellow students from Patongo, are competing in the National Music Competition and hope to return with the coveted top prize – a prize that no one expects refugee children to win.  The documentary unfolds in two parts: the first being the lives of the children and how they either became parentless or how they were kidnapped by the LRA.  The second, follows the kid’s adventures at the competition.  The latter half of the film is treated in a cinema verite style but the start of the film is haunting and it’s here that the filmmakers really start to play around with documentary style and substance.  The filmmakers take the children back to the scenes of their catastrophes. Nancy, a quiet girl with a stiff upper lip, finally breaks down when she visits her father’s burial grounds.  Accompanied by her mother who lets her inconsolable daughter wail (and rightly so), the scene gets intense…quickly.  It’s a rare moment where the “subjects” honesty is so raw and real that you have to look away.  You wonder, how did the cameras keep on rolling?   At a lecture seminar given at Ryerson University as a part of the MFA documentary media lecture, a co-producer of the film reveals that the mother gave her blessing and wanted the cameras to capture the scene on tape.   No doubt a response, in part due to her trust in the filmmakers.  Dominic, also trusting of the filmmakers, reveals for the first time that he has murdered someone.  Captured by the LRA to be one of their child soldiers, Dominic re-tells (although initially reluctant at the beginning of the film) how he had to kill to survive.  His words alone are disheartening but it’s in the manner that the filmmakers capture his story that is even more compelling.   Sean and Andrea encouraged the kids to look into the lens of the camera when speaking and it’s as if they are looking right at the audience, who are looking right at them.  Coupled with an intimate re-telling of their stories are beautiful landscape visuals of the “scenes of the crime” with the kids in the foreground. It’s a haunting technique that Fine goes on to explain, “It’s almost like time stopped for them. And they went into a dream state. In their interviews, they talk like that. I mean, a little girl is talking about her parents’ heads being taken out of a pot in front of her, and she’s telling me this story interwoven with impressions of heat coming off of grass and the sound of flies in her ear. That’s what inspired those shots.”

An interpretation of the sublime for an audience engaged in documentary storytelling can be understood as the articulation of horror while witnessing something beautiful at a distance of safety.   In her seminal text, Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag provides a counter to the use of the sublime.  Her critique serves as a reminder that the message behind the picture has the potential to dull in presence of its beauty:

Transforming is what art does, but photography that bears witness to the calamitous and the reprehensible is much criticized if it seems “aesthetic”…a beautiful photograph drains attention from the sobering subject and turns it toward the medium itself, thereby compromising the picture’s status as a document.  The photograph gives mixed signals.  Stop this, it urges.  But it also exclaims, What a spectacle!

However, the power of the sublime can also serve as a release, a sort of shock and awe energy that can draw viewers in through its beauty.   In Kerner’s book, Representing the Catastrophic, he describes the function of the sublime according to Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian French philosopher and literary critic.  Kerner explains, “We encounter the sublime, according to Kristeva, through works of art, literature and subsequently these are the portals through which a cathartic process is facilitated.  Kristeva identifies the cathartic potential of the cinema because she argues that drive energy (e.g., the abject) is encoded in aesthetic embellishments such as sound, tone, colour, space, etc., not in the communicative function properly speaking.”  In regards to the interpretation of the sublime for the audience, I believe this to be true. But in regards to the participants, who perform the act of revisiting and recalling their traumatic experience for the cause of these aesthetic embellishments, they too can achieve a cathartic release.   Cathy Caruth’s articulates this idea in her article Recapturing the Past: Introduction.  Caruth states that,

The traumatic nightmare, undistorted by repression or unconscious wish, seems to point directly to an event, and yet, as Freud suggests, it occupies a space to which willed access is denied…the flashback, it seems, provides a form of recall that survives at the cost of willed memory or of the very continuity of conscious thought.  While the traumatized are called upon to see and to relive the insistent reality of the past, they recover a past that encounters consciousness only through the very denial of active recollection.

Rose, Dominic and Nancy’s recalled flashbacks serve as a performance and they succeed not just through their conviction of delivery but through their honesty and their voice. Hayden White advises in his essay, Historical Emplotment and the Problem of Truth, that representations of the Holocaust should be approached using what he terms the “middle voice.”   This is in essence, performative: the action and the utterance are one in the same.   Thus, the performative nature of the film, leading the kids back to the scene while talking about what has happened in the past, lends itself to a seemingly cathartic release through performance.  Abjection, like catastrophe in (tragic) drama, indicates a disturbance in the order of things, and while the abject cannot be “gotten rid of,” in identifying it, and through its “articulation” it is possible to facilitate a cathartic experience.

There is growing recognition by media theorists that perhaps society’s need to represent the catastrophic functions not just as shameless entertainment but can also serve as a means to work through trauma.   Psychiatrist Judith Herman writes in her book, Trauma and Recovery, “Recovering from trauma entails traveling a delicate path from the trauma itself to some kind of post-traumatic space.   While on such a path, people work through recovery’s three stages – establishing safety, engaging in remembrance and mourning, and reconnecting with ordinary life.”    Remembrance and mourning for the kids in War Dance will hopefully lead them to a path of recovery.  However, engaging in remembrance to provoke societal change purely through documentary storytelling is more of an idealistic viewpoint.  The interpretation of what seems to be a cathartic experience for the participant can also be seen as a means to initiate a collective working through trauma within the audience.  Since we have gone through the act of listening, we too can function as a witness. Barbie Zelizer writes in her article entitled Photography, Journalism, and Trauma, “Bearing witness brings individuals together on their way to collective recovery.  Defined as an act of witnessing that enables people to take responsibility for what they see, bearing witness moves individuals from the personal act of “seeing” to the adoption of public stance by which they become part of a collective working through trauma together.”   The ability to collectively work through trauma is a precursor to the idea of collective memory – if we bear witness together, we can heal together lest we never forget, in the language of post September 11th. However it terms of someone who has never suffered through civil war, Rose, Dominic and Nancy can share their stories with me, an audience member, and I can be sympathetic but I can’t pretend that I understand their pain, their lives and their history.  Sontag writes,

Photographs that everyone recognizes are now a constituent part of what a society chooses to think about, or declares that it has chosen to think about.  It calls these ideas “memories,” and that is, over the long run, a fiction.  Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as collective memory – part of the same family of spurious notions as collective guilt.  But there is collective instruction.  All memory is individual, unreproducible – it dies with each person.

And it is this instruction that I take on, as an active audience member. There’s no point in bearing witness without action.  Shoshana Felman writes that bearing witness is “not merely to narrate, but to commit oneself and…the narrative to others: to take responsibility for history or for the truth of the occurrence…[it is] an appeal to community.”  Dominic admits to his killing of a peasant by the smashing of his skull with a shovel, Rose recalls the decapitation of her mother’s head, Nancy remembers her father’s midnight kidnapping.  But we don’t ever get to view the posthumous result.  The images we are now so used to looking at and are expecting to bear witness to…we don’t see.  Instead, we see beautiful landscapes intercut with close ups of the children, looking directly at us. Returning our gaze.  It is them who have to go on living in this hell.   They are living history of how we, the world, their communities, their government has failed them and it is still them that must keep living every day to survive.  This is what Fine and Nix want us to remember.  But how is this directed into action?  Without us even knowing it, the directors have engaged us in action by stealth.

Fine and Nix collaborated on the film with Shine Global, a non-profit organization that produced and raised the funds to finance the film.   Shine Global has a mandate to make documentaries that combat the exploitation of children.  Because of its non-profit status, money made on the film is funneled back, not into investor pockets but into the communities in which these films are taking place. Susan MacLaury, a co-founder in Shine Global, states, “We want to make an impact.  Just by buying a ticket, you are helping to affect change there.”   In terms of War Dance, she means in the refugee camp in Northern Uganda where Rose, Dominic and Nancy live. So how did a little film produced by a non-profit group throwing fundraising parties in one of the producer’s living rooms make its way onto the stage at the Oscars?    Mark Urman, head of ThinkFilm’s US theatrical division, was at one of those homegrown fundraisers when he learned about the children of Uganda.  Watching a 7 minute reel of footage that Andrea and Sean produced from one of their last visits to Uganda, Urman quickly realized the power of War Dance: compelling characters, unforgettable tragedy and the tension of a potentially uplifting ending. “I did not expect visual polish and artistry from a film funded in a potluck function way,” Urman says. “I mean, it looked like a David Lean movie.”   Urman’s interest only extends to the commercial potential, of course.  He states, “A movie is not a charity,” he says. “People go to movies to be entertained. If you commingle the film with the cause, you will instantly abbreviate the film’s theatrical life.”   This was said before the Oscar nomination however.  Andrea Nix understands the importance to do well commercially from a distributor’s point of view but sees no reason to disparage the film’s non-profit roots believing that both sides “get what they want.”  In fact, this sentiment can be taken further – both sides can co-exist and pave the way to actually create change through widespread distribution.  It just takes an innovative production approach and a compelling narrative coupled with stunning visuals.

Susan Sontag has boldly claimed that, “perhaps the only people with the right to look at images of suffering of this extreme order are those who could do something to alleviate it…or those who could learn from it.  The rest of us are voyeurs, whether or not we mean to be.”  What do we learn from War Dance?  That a performative documentary can be both cathartic and emancipatory.  That beauty can represent pain and that a good story that inspires hope in others can be shown throughout the world and leave a lasting impact on the community it showcases.  Dominic, Rose and Nancy, through their honesty and through the filmmaker’s creative use of the documentary form directly address the audience and ask us to be responsible.  We, the others…the voyeurs, from across a continent, are the ones who can help do something about it and we can do it by showing up and buying a ticket.


One thought on ““War Dance” – Shaking the World by Stealth through the Sublime

  1. Hi! Lara here- I had no idea that you were interested in these issues! I’m very happy to read your explorations, and in view of northern Uganda…I wonder why we don’t talk more….

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