Seeing Kassim “The Dream” Ouma’s brilliantly documented life on Remembrance Day—just days after the Fort Flood massacre—brought home many of director Kief Davidson’s points with extra emotion and weight.
The incredible tale of Ouma’s abduction by rebel soldiers from his Ugandan classroom to then be taught the fine arts of killing, bullying and winning at any cost is rife with confessions (“Torturing people. It was fun.”) and revelations (having also been trained as a boxer by the rebels who became the government in 1986, the talented athlete “deserted” the army while in the U.S. attending a tournament; that courageous decision gave Ouma his freedom then fame but also signed his father’s death warrant as the military could not permit the young killer’s escape to go unpunished).
Skillfully intertwining archival footage with cinematographer Tony Molina’s wide-ranging shots (the opening “run” credits being a marvellous example of the splendour to come—editors Tony Breuer and Davidson have effectively merged the material), the film explores not only the horrors of children killing children, it also comes down hard on the legal brutality where blood-craving fans cheer every concussion and cut of boxing—the slow motion punch replays are as excruciating to the viewer as they are life-threatening to the combatants.
Beyond the battles in the ring, the film’s drama comes in the form of Ouma’s desperate desire to return home, see what remains of his family (during the years under study, his mother and one son successfully immigrate to the U.S.—in a lighter moment, Ouma admits he has no wife and is more content with “pre-marriage” explorations; later, he allows that his held-back-in-final-training semen will eventually “release [six more] kids like new albums”) and pay haunted, belated respects to his brutally murdered daddy. All that’s required is a pardon from President Museveni. A few visits to Capitol Hill pave the way as the world champion’s celebrity opens many doors. Problem is, Museveni was also the boy killer’s commander, causing Ouma to refuse to apologize for his actions and unfurling the “nigga” epithet when referring to the Ugandan leader at the homecoming news conference. No worries, the government’s propaganda machine uses that bit of tape to clearly demonstrate how American the fighter has become.
Davidson pulls no punches in what he allows to be seen: Ouma’s love of weed, partying and strong drink figures prominently in the loss of one of his biggest matches, but all can be forgiven when such close associates as his Irish trainer (affectionately known as “Uncle Tom”) opine that with the daily nightmares of atrocities-past for constant companions, it’s little wonder solace is sought in mind-bending substances and hell raising.
Special mention goes to the original music from Leo Heiblum, Andrés Solis and Jacobo Lieberman (who performs much of it on guitar and banjo along with mallet magician Alexis Ruiz, cellist Rodrigo Duarte and Ramón Gutiérrez doing stellar work on requinto jarocho). Not only does the instrumentation add further global colour to the international story, it’s not hard to imagine the drums as punches or guns even as the dark cello lines underscore the frequently uncomfortable recreations of tragic history; the slight bits of jazz heard after Ouma’s release from his military indentures perfectly bridge the two cultures, just as Ragga Dee’s performance of “Letter O” establishes the joy of community no matter what level of impoverishment.
Similar to Beautiful Boxer (cross-reference below), Ouma’s miserable past is largely put behind him by mastering violence as entertainment while sending adversaries down for the count. If only time could stop for a decade and the malleable minds of today’s child soldiers be put to better pursuits than unthinking revenge fed by fear of reprisal (“If you cry, they’ll kill you.”). JWR