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From Refugee Camp to the Red Carpet

Photos from top: Crowded conditions at the Patongo camp; Swantek and her colleagues in the camp; Swantek and Dominic in a car; Dominic taking a break from filming; and Swantek on the road in Africa.
The makeshift hostel was hot, full of cockroaches and drunken soldiers. Its storage shed doubled as a bar, serving warm beer and Cokes. The only food for sale was oily cabbage and rice. And Josie Swantek couldn’t have been happier to be there.

Outside the hostel, roughly 60,000 refugees lived in squalid conditions, packed together in an area that would ordinarily provide room for 10 farm families. The camp had neither running water nor electricity. Inside the hostel, Swantek’s bodyguard made sure that soldiers did not stumble into her or her colleagues’ rooms by accident, since the building also doubled as a brothel.

Swantek, a filmmaker six years removed from her 2000 CUA graduation, was in Patongo, a Ugandan government camp 200 miles north of the capital of Kampala. The refugees, who are members of the Acholi tribe, were moved to Patongo to protect them from a messianic warlord, Joseph Kony, who has terrorized northern Uganda for 20 years. Swantek was there to make a documentary film about a group of children at Patongo who had overcome enormous hardships to achieve joy and success through music and dance.

“It was the closest thing to hell on Earth,” Swantek says of the camp. “But I also realized this is where I want to be, talking to people and telling their stories.”

In doing so, Swantek helped her film team earn a 2008 Academy Award nomination for the documentary “War/Dance,” and also brought attention to a long-neglected and greatly suffering part of the world.

Swantek’s path to Patongo began at CUA, where she majored in media studies and drama. Originally, she had wanted to go to school in New York City. Instead, financial aid swayed her to CUA and she came to appreciate its nurturing environment. “New York would have swallowed me whole,” says the alumna, who grew up in a small town in Nebraska.

After graduation, she steadily accrued experience in the film business. She worked for three years in film production at National Geographic, worked on a real estate reality television program for the Discovery Channel, mentored inner-city children in a filmmaking project, and wrote and produced a movie for the U.S. government about its AIDS program in Africa.

“I learned so much, it was the start of my real desire to work overseas,” Swantek says of the AIDS documentary. “It opened my eyes to what I love to be doing.”

Swantek’s hands-on experience also appealed to her former co-workers from National Geographic, Sean and Andrea Fine. The Fines had married and left National Geographic in 2003 to form their own company, Fine Films. After they won a grant from the Shine Global film production company to make a movie on children’s issues, they invited Swantek to join the crew. She soon found herself in northern Uganda for seven weeks, serving as co-producer for the film shoot that became “War/Dance.”

“My role included coordinating on the phone, handling logistics such as where we would eat and sleep in the refugee camp and how we were going to get there,” Swantek says. “I also worked with the translator to connect with the kids and to transcribe the translations.”

As part of that process, Swantek worked closely with three children who are at the center of “War/Dance”: 14-year-old Dominic, a xylophone player; 13-year-old Rose, a choir singer; and 14-year-old Nancy, a dancer. All struggled to overcome personal tragedies and hardships to prepare for Uganda’s annual National Music and Dance Competition. Dominic is an escaped child soldier whom Kony’s soldiers had forced to murder prisoners, Rose witnessed her parents’ murder, and Nancy takes care of three siblings since her father was killed and her mother abducted. As one of their everyday difficulties, the three have a school but no teachers.

Kony and his followers have waged a guerrilla war from the Ugandan jungles since 1987, targeting civilian villages they believe are collaborating with the Ugandan government. Kony claims he is a prophet of Christ and his goal is to rule Uganda according to his own understanding of the Ten Commandments and the Bible. Kony’s soldiers, called the Lord’s Resistance Army, have killed and orphaned thousands and abducted roughly 20,000 children to serve as soldiers. They’ve also forced hundreds of women into sexual slavery.

The United Nations has recently described the resulting devastation as “the biggest forgotten and neglected humanitarian emergency in the world.” The International Criminal Court in the Netherlands has also issued an arrest warrant for Kony and his top commanders.

Though the Ugandan government’s camps for the Acholi people at Patongo and elsewhere do provide some sanctuary, they are still sometimes subject to Kony’s guerrilla raids aimed at abducting boys and women.

Despite the violence, the children of the Patongo camp have found hope and joy in the music and dance competition — a yearly contest for Ugandan schoolchildren from 20,000 schools — and in 2006 became the first students from the northern war zone to make it to the finals.

“War/Dance” chronicles their rehearsals and auditions as they make their surprising journey from Patongo to the finals in Kampala. Along the way, the joy and harmony found in the rhythmic music and dancing is as infectious as the smiles of the children.

Their story might have ended with the conclusion of the competition if Swantek and her colleagues hadn’t been on hand. After seven weeks filming in this war zone, the crew returned to the United States and set to work transforming raw footage into a film.

Once finished, the film made the rounds of film festivals and soon caught fire. It earned 15 awards from festivals large and small, including the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in Utah.

“This is documentary filmmaking at its best….It’s a testimony to the endurance of beauty and joy in the face of unspeakable evil,” said a review in The Washington Post.

Other equally positive reviews followed, though the film received some criticism that its gorgeous landscape and dancing images distract viewers from the underlying anguish. Eventually, “War/Dance” caught the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, whose voters determine Oscar nominations and winners.

This February, Swantek, along with the Fines, walked the red carpet at the Academy Awards ceremony. The film did not win the top honor for best documentary, but earned accolades for Fine Films and attention for long-suffering northern Uganda.

“The world community hasn’t paid much attention to the civil war in northern Uganda and it is an issue that needs our attention,” Swantek says. “There is so much dysfunction, but still there is so much hope and joy there.”

Despite the dangers and hardship, Swantek traveled back to Patongo this June to screen the film for those in the camp. If residents of the camp give the OK, the film will be shown throughout Uganda.

In addition, Shine Global Inc. says profits from “War/Dance” are to be donated to Patongo and efforts are under way to help educate Dominic, Nancy and Rose.

In the meantime, Swantek is back at work for Fine Films, busy with a film on the Tennessee Valley Authority. Ultimately, she hopes to be in charge of her own projects, but wherever she ends up, Swantek says she will be in the field, talking to people and hearing their stories.

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Revised: August 2008

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