When is a picture too pretty? A shot too artfully composed? Such questions vex Sean and Andrea Fine's luscious and leering War/Dance.

In setting out to tell the inspirational tale of traumatized children achieving grace through artistic expression, the former National Geographic filmmakers dangerously toe the line between uplift and leering exploitation.

Rose, Dominic and Nancy are young teens living in the Northern Ugandan refugee camp Patongo. A dangerous and isolated place, they and 60,000 other Acholi tribe members live in dusty destitution, fearful that murderous rebels — the Lord's Resistance Army — will steal them away in the night.

Survivors of unthinkable tragedies, the children's one shining hope is a chance to win the National Music Competition in Kampala. Against all odds, their elementary school has qualified to compete, but resources are scarce and few instructors are willing to brave the trip to rehearse them. Undaunted, the children spend every moment of their free time practicing and dreaming ... and you'd have to be a total bastard not to be moved by the strength of their spirit.

But there's something unsettling about the way the Fines' cameras move in unconscionably close on Nancy as she sobs and flails at her slaughtered father's grave. Each of the war orphans are stylishly composed against picturesque landscapes as they recount the horrors of their past. Their heartbreaking monologues are juiced up with ominous sound effects as quick cuts to a stalking predator's POV — reminiscent of high-gloss nature shows — flash between descriptions of mutilation and murder. A perfectly photographed tear slides down an ebony cheek. It's all so garishly manipulative, as if Nike's best ad directors were asked to capture the devastating thrill of third world brutality.

And still, you can't turn away. The atrocities are real and the children's longing palpable.

A xylophone becomes the unlikely salvation for Dominic, whose years as a child-soldier fill him with shame. Unlike most wake-up-call docs, War/Dance is painfully aware that movie audiences quickly suffer from empathy fatigue. And so entertainment, not guilt, is its ultimate goal. Framed as an upbeat tale of underdog heroes struggling to reclaim their sense of self, the Fines coat their social consciousness in a rousing tale of competition (a la Spellbound or any of a dozen sports documentaries). It's hard to argue with the effectiveness of their strategy — you'll be appalled by the tragedies these innocents have endured; you'll revel in their achingly triumphant expressions of joy. It's easy to question how the filmmakers have taken advantage of their young subjects' pain, but if War/Dance inspires even some of its viewers to global action, it will have succeeded where so many other docs about Africa's suffering have failed. And no number of "ratings stars" can argue with that.

Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 7, and Friday and Saturday, Feb. 8-9, at 9:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].

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