Dominic Akena was 9 years old when rebel soldiers from Lord's Resistance Army captured him and forced him to become a child soldier in Uganda's civil war.
After a month of servitude, Akena, now a sophomore at Franklin & Marshall College, escaped the rebels and took refuge in a displacement camp. It was there, nearly four years later, that he would meet a pair of documentary filmmakers, Sean and Andrea Fine, who would capture his story and change his life.
Akena's journey from his war-torn country to F&M began when the Fines arrived at the northern Uganda's Patongo Refugee Camp, where Akena was living. They wanted to film the story of Akena and two of his friends preparing to compete in that country's national music and dance event, the annual Kampala Music Festival.
Akena was 13, still working through the trauma of having been forced to take up arms and kill at such a young age. He initially kept to himself while attending the refugee camp's school. Music, particularly the xylophone, was his way of reclaiming some sense of normalcy.
"There wasn't much for me to do that I felt comfortable doing," Akena said. "I spent most of my time learning musical instruments."
Akena also learned guitar and drums. "It gave me a little window space in which to start challenging myself." Akena used the xylophone for the competition, and in the film, he says, "Without music, there would be no life."
The Fines captured the story of Akena and his friends' fight for security and hope in the 2007 award-winning documentary, "War/Dance," scheduled for screening 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Feb. 19, in Lisa Bonchek Adams Auditorium in Kaufman Hall. (Because of technical difficulties, the screening has been rescheduled to 7:30 p.m., Thursday, Feb. 20, in Stahr Auditorium.)
Filming was dangerous for the Fines. Uganda was divided by more than two decades of war. Sean would leave Andrea and their 1-year-old son in a stable region to film in war-zone locations where abductions and ambushes were frequent.
A New Start in a New World
The film's critical acclaim drew attention to the plight of Akena, who was invited to finish his education at an international high school in Canada, an opportunity the Fines urged him to take. The Fines are now his legal guardians.
When Akena went to live with the Fines in Easton, Md., he became friends with their neighbor's son, F&M junior Paul Berry, an English major. Berry was so impressed by Akena that he encouraged him to consider applying to F&M.
Berry recalled thinking, "Dominic would be a perfect fit. He wants to learn so much and he's so humble. He doesn't want any advantages."
Akena visited F&M and met with F&M President Daniel R. Porterfield. Berry had arranged the meeting after briefing Porterfield and showing him the documentary. "I went to President Porterfield and said, 'You have to have him as a student,'" Berry recalled. "And, to be a little selfish, I really wanted him to be here with me."
"It was a big deal meeting with the president," Akena said. "He talked to me about all the diversity of the campus. It just reassured me that there were students like me on campus."
Akena still plays guitar and drums and is considering taking up the xylophone again. He enjoys his film classes and is considering a major in film and media studies.
"If it wasn't for that film I probably wouldn't have gone to that school in Canada," he said. "And I certainly wouldn't have gone here."
Documentaries, said Professor of Film and Media Studies Dirk Eitzen, who teaches a course on the art, are critical to a film student's understanding of filmmaking.
"What's really important for students at a liberal arts college is to know how movies can matter," Eitzen said. "Documentaries aspire to move people to think and to act."
When "War/Dance" is screened on campus, it will be the first time many of Akena's friends and fellow students will have learned about his early-life experiences.
"Hopefully they will learn something about where I come from," he said.