War Dance Screening in Northern Uganda

This is the first installment in a series of posts by Open Air Cinema Technician Jay Johnson. Jay is presently in Northern Uganda where he has joined the makers of the Academy Award nominated documentary ‘War/Dance' on their first return to the refugee camp where the documentary was filmed. Jay will assist the team in screening War/Dance on an Open Air Cinema Elite System in the remote refugee camp of Patongo. Dancer in front of Inflatable Outdoor Movie ScreenWe are traveling way too fast on a dirt road heading north. For purposes of safety, we are grouped in a convoy of four Toyota Landcruisers and we've just managed to escape the city. For at least an hour now I have been bouncing around in the back seat. Everything rattles. Not only are we dealing with hundreds of potholes the size of kettle drums, but also an endless array of speed bumps. I have counted over 74 in the last one-mile stretch. I am traveling with an American film crew to the war-zones of Northern Uganda to screen a documentary film to thousands of refugees. Somewhere between here and the Sudan is a truck full of equipment imported from the United States: a 25 foot inflatable movie screen, a mixing board, two DVD decks and hundreds of feet of tightly coiled power cords. The projector I hold tightly on my lap, hoping that somehow my bones will absorb any shock that might damage the fragile bulb. But its useless really. We are scheduled to reach a refugee camp in Northern Uganda in about 8 hours, so with nothing else to do, I look back on the events that brought me here. About 4 weeks ago I happened upon a documentary called ‘War/Dance' about a group of school children practicing for a dance competition in a refugee camp in Northern Uganda. I can honestly say that this was one of the most powerful documentaries I had ever seen. The difficult yet powerful stories were told without exaggeration and the imagery was spectacular. I had no idea that in 3 weeks I would be sitting with those children in that camp watching that documentary on an Open Air Cinema movie screen. Our convoy finally reaches the camp, and I am feeling unbelievably beat. The sun is setting just behind the fields, and the clouds roll along the red horizon. I have seen War Dance a few times by now, so I instantly recognize the surroundings. Patong Primary School is just as it had appeared in the film: dirty yellow buildings set in the middle of the bush. Next to the school is a large football field full of dry grass and two shade trees. Under the trees I notice a large circle of school children, some banging drums as they spin, and others stomping barefoot in the red dirt. They are singing folk songs as loudly as they can.
Patongo Children Caught in the Headlights

Patongo Children Caught in the Headlights

I took a few pictures of those first few moments in the camp. The children are dancing in the beams of light coming from our Land Cruiser. Its dark out here, so their figures are all twisted into strange shapes. Day Two I didn't sleep much last night. A wooden slat under the mattress of my bed was broken and I was slipping through it most of the night. Then sometime around 3am the frame holding up my mosquito net came crashing down on top of me. Of course there was no electricity and no lights so I couldn't exactly get up to sort things out. I just threw the netting to the side and tried my best to ignore all the malarial mosquitos biting the soles of my feet. By daybreak I am already out walking the dirt paths of Patongo, snapping photos of beetles, and stray dogs and these two little antelope-like creatures as they struggle to hop through the camp. They had been tied together at the legs, so every leap was cut short by a rope. By about 8am I am outside in the parking lot sorting through the trucks to find the equipment we will need for this afternoon's private screening of War Dance at the school. After a whole lot of wire-stripping and duct-taping, I finally have the JBL Eon speakers hooked up to a generator and a mixer board. We lift the whole rig into the back of one of the Toyotas, lash it down with florescent webbing, and send it off through the camp blasting a radio spot for tomorrow's screening. We are hoping the majority of the 10,000 some odd people still living in the camp will join us tomorrow night on the football field, underneath the two trees where the movie screen will be inflated. My mosquito net is working fine tonight, but I still can't sleep. I'm kept awake by the buzzing in my own head. The circumstances I find myself in at the moment have finally overwhelmed me. Here I am, in a refugee camp surrounded by the images I had seen on my own TV just three weeks previous. I admit that when I first watched War Dance I became emotional enough that I even cried a few drops. By now I have met the three children who told their stories in the film. I don't really feel it is my place to tell their stories here, but let me just say that they have all been through things as very young children that just do not seem at all possible. As they told their stories in the film I was definitely rattled, but to be here where all those things really happened leaves me feeling restless. Day Three I ordered one omelet at the restaurant across the street, but for some reason the waitress has brought me three. Its going to be a long day, so why not? I have made a checklist of things that need to be squared away before we go to the football field and set up the equipment. All the gear I will use today has been in Kenya for over a year. Its a system that we donated to an organization called Film Aid, and they have been using it to screen educational films in refugee camps in the area. It was shipped here overland in a truck, and its only a guess as to the condition it is in. So, the first task this morning is to unpack it all, inspect it, clean it, and test it. Fortunately, I have a few friends on the team who have always been ready to help out, namely Steve from the African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF) in Kampala and Charles from the Film Aid office in Nairobi. To be continued

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