ON 'SIEMBRA' AND 'WAR/DANCE'
The 2015 Colombian narrative fiction film Siembra, about a family of Colombian peasants, and the Oscar-winning 2007 American documentary film War/Dance, about the children of a Ugandan tribe, both explore a similar theme of the positive role of music in the lives of their impoverished subjects who have all been displaced by civil war in their respective countries. It is an uplifting and universal theme that suggests the powerful and transformative act of sublimation in deflecting the experience of misery, pain and suffering into the exercise of relief-giving and ecstatic musical performance. And there is an overabundance of misery, pain and suffering to go around.
With regard to the displaced subjects in Siembra, “Colombia ranks among Sudan, Iraq, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as one of the countries most affected by internal displacement in the world” (Steele 423). The Ugandan civil war and resulting displacement depicted in War/Dance, is characterized as “one of the most persistent and deadliest complex humanitarian emergencies in the world today. Over 1.8m people, most of them Acholi, have been internally displaced during the more than 20-year conflict” (Betancourt et al. 239). Although there are some similarities, each film deals with its dramatic subject matter differently in terms of filmmaking technique, film aesthetics and communication style to give a generally dissimilar outlook on these travails of the third world.
In terms of filmmaking technique, the primary difference between Siembra and War/Dance is that the former is a narrative fiction film while the latter is a documentary film. Siembra is a fully staged cinematic concoction while War/Dance, despite being about real people and real situations, is partly staged but more reliant on the spontaneity and unplanned nature of documentary filmmaking.
Whereas Siembra’s premeditated statement requires a less intense and time-sensitive approach to the filmmaking from a large creative team, War/Dance required a more aggressive technique from fewer players to capture and give form to the unexpected turns of the subjects’ lives in an infrequently documented part of the world. The filmmakers have remarked upon the “purity” of documenting such a rarely revealed part of the world: “It was just magical—those kids got into our hearts right away. When you go to a place where no one's helped people because it's so dangerous” (Fine).
Siembra's narrative fiction approach allows for a darker, more somber statement to be made that transcends reality while War/Dance's reality-focused technique bolsters the euphoria of its positive conclusions. Additionally, the technique also differs in regard to the particular human subjects of each film.
In Siembra, the subjects in front of the camera are actors whose performance requires more hands-on involvement from the makers of the film; whereas in War/Dance, the subjects are given more free-roam and but coached slightly in order to deliver the story’s drama in a more efficient and impactful way. One similarity between the techniques applied to each film is through the play of imagery to induce a subjective sense of the subjects’ experience. Both Siembra and War/Dance feature at least one moment in which the filmmakers slow down footage of the subjects’ music or dance performance to convey the internal state of bliss and ecstasy experienced in such acts.
Regarding narrative, both films mostly adhere to a basic linear, chronological and causally-linked arrangement of events. Also, both films have similar settings. In Siembra, we see the coastal and rural area of Colombia as well as the shanty town-like refugee area within the urban sprawl of Cali as well as the more metropolitan area of that city. While in War/Dance, we are exposed to the rural refugee camp area of Northern Uganda and, later on, the more dense urban area of Kompala.
Both films also follow a typical three-act structure that finds the characters’ lives in meaningless disarray in the first act, struggling to come to terms with their pasts in the second act and, lastly, achieving a sense of balance and purpose through the power of cultural tradition and practice in the final act. However, there are some differences in terms of narrative.
Despite both films generally following the three-act structure, Siembra’s structure is a bit more indiscernible and cryptic which lends itself to vividly illustrating the complexity of its protagonist's emotional journey. Also, Siembra features a single protagonist through the majority of its narrative while War/Dance follows the story of multiple protagonists. War/Dance's multiple protagonists allow a richer, more pluralistic view of the dramatic events which unfold.
Turning attention to editing, the approaches are wildly different. Siembra’s editing is generally sparse, slower-paced and contains far fewer edits. The director and editor seemed fairly content with letting shots play out in either sustained master, medium-long shots or close-ups. For a narrative, there is also very little inter-shot continuity.
War/Dance, on the other hand, contains maybe as much as 20 times as many edits as Siembra. It is more intensely edited, ratcheted up in terms of speed with a dramatically faster pace and the whole film cycles through more and quite stunning imagery. It can be deduced that the cameramen on War/Dance were extremely busy capturing such a variety of shots and the editor makes ample use of such a girth of picturesque footage. Such a girth lends an attractive, almost travelogue-like quality to the filmed events which suggests that despite the ugliness of the political situation for the Acholi children, there is portentive beauty in the environment.
Focusing on production design, Siembra has the advantage of being consciously designed a certain way as opposed to the limitations of what the War/Dance filmmakers had to work with. But compared to War/Dance, Siembra’s production design stands on par with presenting a developing part of the world with alike authenticity. At no point does Siembra’s sparse production design raise questions or skepticism about its realism. The settings, mainly those of the refugee’s homes, neighborhood and funeral chapel are completely convincing and wind the fiction in said authenticity. This aspect of Siembra helps disguise the story's artifice and transmit its theme with little required suspension of disbelief.
Concerning cinematography, these films depart from one another in a significant way in this department. A major visual choice was made by the filmmakers of Siembra to shoot the film in black and white, as opposed to War/Dance’s vivacious color cinematography. Siembra’s black and white cinematography is primarily bland in its high concentration of greys rather than the stark, high-contrast and dramatic quality associated with a more dynamic use of greyscale cinematography. However, this quality lends itself to the misery and desolation that marks much of the narrative. Additionally, Siembra is also distinct for its tendency toward mostly medium shots and medium-close shots with few major deviations in focal length. On the other hand, War/Dance contains a far greater variety of camera angles, shot sizes and focal lengths. Through such choices, War/Dance offers up a veritable smorgasbord of visual variety and serves to give the documentary resplendent visual panache that again serves to uplift the overall positive message of the film. This is a quality that Siembra completely lacks but necessarily so in service of its more melancholy tale and grimmer outlook.
Setting sights, or ears rather, on sound design, both films feature many instances of diegetic music usage but of varying kinds. Siembra includes the sounds of acapella funeral songs, salsa and youth-produced beat-heavy music while War/Dance offers the diegetic music in the form of the young music students’ curricular music and also a bit more conventionally African music in non-diegetic form at times. The sound effects and dialogue mix in both films is also conventionally naturalistic. However, Siembra incorporates, in at least one key occasion, a very playful and stylized use of music that is hard to determine whether it is diegetic or non-diegetic. Nevertheless, it occurs in a moment when the protagonist’s son is energetically dancing to music amid a crowd and the only element in the soundtrack consists of a hauntingly rhythmic and vocal piece of music. The moment is sustained to a surreal extent and it is one of the highlights of the entire film that really sells the bliss of musical performance.
About the acting, both films are rife with subjects living, at least initially, miserable lives and expressing sadness but with a dogged determination to better their lives. But Siembra’s acting, as it is a narrative fiction, is so naturalistic and plausible that it’s hard not to believe that the filmmakers used non-actors for the few main roles in the film.
With regard to War/Dance, it is a documentary so the expectation is that you are seeing real people in real situations. However, there is a level of artifice in the way that the subjects of the film, the young children of the Acholi tribe, seem to have been posed, rehearsed and coached for the interviews of them which are presented. Their delivery lacks spontaneity and a measure of unsureness or apprehension that is expected with interviews of subjects so young talking about such traumatic events and dire circumstances. However, as a result, the subjects' speaking is swift, efficient and more fittingly dramatic than it would otherwise be.
When it comes to communication style, both films offer up narratives of displacement and third world desperation that appeal primarily to the emotions of the audience. Siembra is distinct in its communication style for being rather opaque and mysterious in its approach to telling the story. More is demanded of the audience to make meaning of the film’s story beats.
On the other hand, War/Dance sells its moments and narrative direction with absolute clarity and transparency. The viewer knows when a moment is tragic or hopeful for its subjects. Siembra keeps the impact of events on its subjects rather closeted and ambiguous. Siembra’s general approach to communication through film is akin to what Alfred Hitchcock termed as “pure cinema,” (Belton) or a reliance on “Kuleshovian montage and restrained acting, especially in facial close-ups, so that when the cut was made to what the character was looking it, the viewer would experience the emotion directly, through identification” (Belton) rather than through verbal expression. This contrasts with the way War/Dance illustrates its story points through the guidance of narration and interviews in a highly verbal and not quite as purely cinematic way.
In conclusion, Siembra and War/Dance, through mostly differing approaches to filmmaking technique, film aesthetics and communication style, both manage to illustrate a similar theme of global concern about the transformative power of cultural practices, like dance and music, in distinct ways that illustrate how the flexibility and diversity of cinematic expression can be used to make life seem gravely dim or promisingly bright.
Belton, John. Hitchcock: Influence, Imitation, and Intertextuality. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.
Betancourt, Theresa Stichick, et al. "A Qualitative Study of Mental Health Problems among Children Displaced by War in Northern Uganda." Transcultural Psychiatry (2009): pp. 238-256.
Fine, Sean and Andrea Nix Fine. Grace Under Fire: The Power of Music and Art. Mother Jones. November/December 2007.
Steele, Abbey. "Seeking Safety: Avoiding Displacement and Choosing Destinations in Civil Wars." Journal of Peace Research (2009): pp. 419-429.