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Andrea Nix Fine: Seeing beauty in danger zones

Andrea Nix Fine and her husband, Sean, tell "amazing stories of hope in dangerous areas" through their nonprofit production company, Shine Global. Contribute magazine  shares  their story in part 2 of "The Storytellers."
/ Source: Contribute Magazine

"You find the amazing stories of hope in dangerous areas,” says Andrea Nix Fine, 38, of why difficulty enthralls her. She collaborates with her husband, Sean, 34, on films that lead audiences into discomfort zones of their own: where people expect horrors, the Fines reveal unexpected beauty.

In 2005, the Fines got a call from a nonprofit production company, Shine Global, to film the stories of kids, some of whom had been abducted by rebel soldiers in Uganda. Andrea had just given birth to her son, but they decided nevertheless to follow this call as if it were not a phone call from Montclair, N.J., but a summons to destiny. Having two new parents in a war zone was unthinkable, so Sean traveled to Patongo Refugee camp in Uganda with a sound technician and collaborated with Andrea daily by phone. He’d climb the tallest wall in the area—it surrounded the local brothel—to dowse one bar of connectivity out of the empty sky, Sean says.

All they knew was that they would tell a story of children. Only later did they learn that the kids in Patongo Primary School were preparing for an American Idol, Uganda-style: an annual competition to award prizes to the best young musicians and performers in Uganda. No one from Patongo had ever been invited to compete before. Patongo is no ordinary community; it is similar to a refugee camp, not of exiles but of Ugandans who had lost homes and family to murders and violence by rebel soldiers. The kids had no musical training and used instruments held together by prayers and twine.

The Patongo children are so remarkable, it’s easy to think the Fines got lucky in finding their story. But their camera in their film, War/Dance—the winner of the 2007 Sundance Documentary Directing award and now in national release—uncovers a deeper truth: that kids broken by trauma can make a decision to let the genie of their talent come pouring out. The kids are not wildly special, says Andrea. “They need something special just to survive.” That is music. And so the Fines challenge their audiences by making beauty a character in their story—the gorgeousness of the landscape and the heart-punch thrill of the music. The Fines hypnotize audiences into imagining the camp’s huts are a Four Seasons compound. Why shouldn’t there be beauty in horrors? That is the undersong of War/Dance. Their approach has so disconcerted critics that they have challenged the Fines on whether horrors and atrocities should be filmed in images of beauty. The Fines deplore these criticisms: “To say that a child’s face is too beautiful is just ridiculous,” Andrea says.

Even from a distance, Andrea imagined the beauty. She insisted the kids look into the camera. Sean’s first inclination was to interview the children in a traditional style, preferring that they speak face-to-face, Q&A-style. But when the kids weren’t opening up, he tried Andrea’s approach, and they began to talk. “No one had ever asked these kids to tell their story before,” Sean said. “Everybody in the camp has the same story, so no one tells their story.” But when the kids looked in the camera, they knew they were talking to other people.

“The kids look you in the eye, and that makes it hard to look away,” Sean says. “They don’t cry. They speak with dignity. They made us want to work all the harder. If the kids stay in people’s hearts after they see the film, we've succeeded.”

Andrea says that similarly, audiences would be far less apt to shut down if they were viewing something beautiful. And in the end, the competitive nature of the American Idol-like contest turned out to be the least important element of their story: “Here’s a bunch of kids making the journey to a peaceful place,” Sean said. “They had never been to a peaceful place in their lives. That journey, alone, was winning.”

The film changed the lives of everyone associated with it. Shine Global is giving 70 percent of the film’s profits to NGOs on the ground in Patongo, as well as money that will go into a scholarship fund for the education of Patongo children. In addition, an organization called 88 Bikes has given the camp hundreds of bicycles—the major form of transport. A Florida high school is collecting used instruments for Patongo. A former child soldier and now a rapper in London wants to do a song with the film’s nine-year-old xylophone player, Dominic. Resolve Uganda, Girls Learn, and Global Action for Children—all international nonprofits— are showing War/Dance to personalize their outreach, lobby for political action, and raise funds.

War/Dance changed Andrea’s life, too. The film won the 2007 Sundance Documentary Directing Award. It’s been nominated for an Oscar. The Fines have been offered a job to produce and direct a feature documentary with Columbia University’s Joseph Califano, Jr., about the impact of addiction in America in the style of the award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.

The Fines are going to Patongo this month to show the film to the children for the first time. “People always ask, how can we adopt these kids?” says Andrea. “The kids say, ‘We’d love to come to visit the United States and learn. But we want to come home and make this place a better place.’ They don’t want to be saved from their homeland. They have such pride about their ancestral land.”

Harriet Rubin writes frequently for The New York Times and is the author of The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, (Doubleday, 1997), and Dante in Love (Simon & Schuster, 2005), among other books.