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Kassim the Dream

Dir: Kief Davidson

Rating: 3.5

IFC Films

86 Minutes

I am a firm believer that though every human being has a compelling story to tell, only a small percentage has one compelling enough to craft a film around. Sure, there is a place for the vapid melodrama of those on reality television, but to create an actual film that features those important elements nobility, suspense and comedy, it takes a really unique or eccentric individual such as a Robert Crumb or a Timothy Treadwell to hold our interest.

Filmmaker Kief Davidson stumbled onto a charismatic goldmine in Kassim Ouma, the subject of Kassim the Dream. Ouma’s mere presence lights up the screen with a crackling vitality so many faux performers would kill for. Kidnapped at age six by Ugandan rebels, Ouma was trained to murder, learned to box, defected during a boxing trip to America and within 10 years established himself as not only a Junior Middleweight champion, but a minor celebrity at that. Kassim Ouma is a star, an ebullient firecracker that exudes cocky confidence and sly wit. He is one of those people that is endlessly watchable in his enthusiasm for life and Davidson allows his camera to linger as Ouma, speaking in an endearing miasma of slang and broken English, tries to achieve not only his dream of rising in the boxing ranks, but escaping the demons of his past.

Though Davidson does focus on Ouma’s intent to climb in the boxing world, it’s the wounded heart and lost childhood he left behind in Uganda that’s the real meat of the story. Deserting not only his family, but a young son, Ouma is considered a traitor to Uganda and faces execution on return. Though he manages to extract both his mother and son, Ouma is powerless to help his father, who is beaten to death in retaliation for his son’s escape. These are pains and guilt that haunt Ouma, though he tries to bandage his sorrow with bling, ass and weed.

In most films, boxing is a stand-in for those who cannot deal with personal pain on regular terms. Just look at Rocky Balboa and Jake LaMotta. True, Stallone frames his character as a lovable doofus, but just like DeNiro’s LaMotta, Rocky finds true release in the ring. Why do you think family members and friends kept dying in the appalling sequels? Rocky needed an impetus to fight. Yet, as LaMotta discovers, pounding the shit out of someone does not catharsis make. Davidson lets this fact slip by and uses the fight scenes for glitzier purposes, a gaffe that could have added more gravitas to his film.

The true drama enters when Ouma returns to Uganda when he is offered a pardon. Though intrusive, it is magical and heartbreaking to watch him visit people and places that had become verboten. Along the way, Ouma, whose local celebrity is affirmed by non-stop mobs of fans, stops at his old army barracks, watches a play depicting a massacre of refugees by guerrillas, pays a tearful visit to his grandmother and finally breaks down in front of his father grave. Should we be watching such a privately intense moment? Probably not, but it does provide a truthful moment of personal pain that is both searing and heartrending.

by David Harris

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