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Knockout: <b>Kassim the Dream</b>

Kassim the Dream (TFF '08) is the riveting—and triumphant—tale of one man's transition from child soldier to champion. As the film opens in theaters, Tribeca checks in with director Kief Davidson.

Behind the charm, smile and power of boxing champion Kassim “The Dream” Ouma lies a unique and tragic story: at age 6, Ouma was kidnapped into the rebel army in Uganda and forced into life as a child soldier. Over the next 12 years, he discovered his pugilistic talents in the army’s boxing team, which led to his defection to the U.S. at age 18. Despite the culture shock, Ouma quickly became Junior Middleweight Champion of the World.

Filmmaker Kief Davidson happened upon Ouma’s remarkable story while watching HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, and knew he had found his next project: “What struck me immediately was the big smile Kassim always seemed to have on his face, even though he was talking about being a child soldier. I wanted to find out what was behind that grin.”
What Davidson, a two-time Tribeca filmmaker (The Devil’s Miner, TFF '05), found was a story full of pain, humor, tribulation and triumph, culminating in Ouma’s long-awaited—and unlikely—return visit to his homeland. 
Kassim the Dream premiered at the 2008 Tribeca Film Festival, picked up awards at AFI Fest, SilverDocs, and IDFA, and received a nomination by the IDA for Best Documentary. Now, on the eve of its theatrical run at the IFC Center here in New York, Davidson sat down with Tribeca to talk about boxing, rehabilitation, and what lies behind that smile.

Kief Davidson

Tribeca: How did you get started in telling Kassim’s story?

Kief Davidson: I was interested in working with Kassim and his manager because it sounded like they wanted to tell an honest story—they were fans of The Devil’s Miner, and wanted Kassim’s story told in a similar way. We came together and did some initial shooting for a trailer, and on the first weekend we started shooting, Kassim lost his Junior Middleweight Championship belt.
Tribeca: Did that worry you?
KD: From a boxing standpoint, it was more compelling due to the potential comeback angle. My main concern was whether this loss would destroy the possibility of Kassim getting a military pardon for desertion. Without that pardon he could not return, because the punishment for desertion was death. Luckily, Kassim made that remarkable comeback and it became clear that Uganda wanted to create a “good PR campaign” and welcome him home.
For me, the real story was back home, where he still had guilt over his father’s death. His father was killed after Kassim deserted. He also had not seen his family in ten years, so he wanted nothing more than to reunite with them.

Had you been involved in boxing before?

KD: No. Kassim could have been any professional athlete for me. Boxing is a dramatic backdrop, but at the end of the day, it’s not a boxing movie. Although, I am now a fan and no longer have to fake my way through the boxing convos.  
Tribeca: What do you think made Kassim able to overcome his horrific childhood? Do you think he’s unique in this way?
KD: He has a remarkably positive attitude toward life. He will talk to almost anybody, and people love this guy. What works in the film is there’s humor intertwined with drama, which makes for an emotional roller coaster ride. At the same time, as jovial and good-natured as he is, he has a very big ego. This stems from his days in the army—the power he wielded as a soldier, with a gun. He’s an extremely complex character.
Tribeca: There are other former child soldiers who have transcended their experiences and become creative—and public—figures…
KD: Yes—Ishmael Beah and Emmanuel Jal come to mind. There are big differences between them. Kassim spent his entire childhood—from ages 6 to 18—in the military. He’s never been through therapy and his education effectively stopped at age 6 [when he was abducted and forced into the army]. Jal and Beah were fortunate enough to receive an education and therapy to help address their traumas, and Kassim hasn’t. This was something I was interested in exploring.
Tribeca: Has anyone offered to help him?
KD: Lots of people want to help Kassim, and he always says he’d like to [go into therapy]. But no one can sit down and force him to do it. He doesn’t want to bring up the past; he wants to ignore it. He wants to go day to day with a positive attitude and a smile on his face, even when he loses his fights. He knows in therapy he will have to rehash his past, and he’s not ready for it.

What has happened to Kassim since the film?

KD: The film ends in 2007, and he’s had a string of losses since losing to Jermain Taylor Also, his addiction problems seem to be worse. But anything can happen in this sport. Kassim is only 29, so it’s too soon to determine whether his career is over yet.
Tribeca: How does he feel about the film?
KD: He really likes the film. He goes to screenings and participates in Q&As. The most difficult screening was the world premiere at Tribeca, because he didn’t know how the audience would react. He wants to be liked all the time, and he was very nervous about what people would think of him. But it was very clear by the end of the first screening how much they liked the movie and Kassim. His confidence was immediately boosted. By the second screening, he strutted up to the front like a rock star.
Tribeca: What was your experience like at the Tribeca Film Festival?
KD: I am originally from New York, so I would always want to premiere my films here if possible. It was an honor to be invited to Tribeca for a second time. It feels like a family atmosphere. You really get to know the staff and programmers—the people who work at TFF make the filmmakers feel at home—and the audiences are great, no matter what.
Tribeca: Kassim the Dream has made the festival circuit. What are your hopes for the film now?
KD: The film is opening at the IFC Center this Friday (June 5) and it will play in select cities this summer up until the VOD launch in October. Then DVD and TV. My goal is to find as large of an audience as possible so the issue of child soldiers is not forgotten. Kassim Ouma is a truly compelling person whose life sheds an interesting light on the topic.

See Kassim the Dream at the IFC Center starting this Friday.

Watch this video:

Read more about Kassim's appearance at TFF 2008.

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