Meet the Filmmakers: Kief Davidson--Kassim The Dream

Over the next week, we at IDA will
be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is nominated for IDA
Documentary Awards in the Feature Documentaries and Short Documentaries
categories. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films-the
inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the
reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Kief Davidson, director/producer
of Kassim The Dream, which is
nominated for Best Feature Documentary.

Synopsis: This is the story of world champion boxer Kassim
"The Dream" Ouma-born in Uganda, kidnapped by the rebel army
and trained to be a child soldier at the age of 6. When the rebels took over
the government, Kassim became an army soldier who was forced to commit many
horrific atrocities, making him both a victim and perpetrator. He soon
discovered the army's boxing team and realized the sport was his ticket to
freedom. After 12 years of warfare, Kassim defected from Africa and arrived in
the United States.
Homeless and culture-shocked, he quickly rose through the boxing ranks and
became Junior Middleweight Champion of the World.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary
filmmaking?

Kief Davidson: I
really had no clue what I wanted to do until my third year of college.
Initially I pursued cinematography and somehow talked my way into a second
assistant camera gig on a Bad Brains
music video. It was a disaster. I couldn't figure out how to close a c-stand,
and halfway into the shoot I lost the smart slate and was publicly fired by the
DP.

I decided to give editing a try instead. Eager and willing
to work for free, I landed an edit gig on a short doc about Sally Mann, the controversial
photographer. This was my first real foray into the biz, and I soon discovered
that the work was perfect training for filmmaking. Fortunately, I didn't mess
the job up, and the film received an Oscar nomination. My editing career took
off immediately. Working with many directors and learning from their successes
and mistakes ultimately gave me the confidence and desire to start making my
own films.

IDA:
What inspired you to make Kassim The
Dream?

KD: Kathleen Davidson, my co-producer and
wife, stumbled upon a short news segment on HBO
Real Sports
about Kassim. Upon viewing the segment, we were struck by the
charm and charisma of this former child soldier-turned-boxing champion of the
world. How could a guy who was kidnapped at the age of six and forced to kill
walk around with such a smile on his face? There was no doubt that a much
bigger story needed to be explored. What is going on in this man's mind? How
does he see the world? I instantly wanted to know more.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and
how did you overcome them?

KD: I wanted
Kassim to tell his own story, but his English was challenging, to say the
least. He is a fast talker and difficult to understand. It was an ongoing joke
that Kassim didn't even understand Kassim. We would play him back his own phone
messages, and he wouldn't have a clue. A lot of time was spent coaxing Kassim
to slow down and take his time.

One of the biggest challenges, however, was the fact that
our story hinged on Kassim returning to Africa
to reunite with his family. The Ugandan military publicly said that if Kassim
was to return to Uganda,
he would be tried for desertion and, if found guilty, executed. Strategic
political pressure was put on the government for Kassim's return, and the
closer we came to achieving entry to Uganda, the more terrified Kassim
became of the trip.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the
pre-production, production and post-production processes?

KD: I recently read
one of my first drafts of a treatment written for the Kassim film, and it was
almost identical to what was ultimately captured in the movie. This rarely
happens, so I consider myself quite lucky. My greatest fear in the early stages
of shooting was that Kassim would not receive a military pardon and make it
back to Africa. The film really would not have
worked without this element. In contrast, the proposal for my prior film, The Devil's Miner, was nothing like the
finished movie, and I couldn't have been happier.

My vision for the film definitely
changed significantly during the editing process. We were working with over 200
hours of footage, and the structure of the film was difficult to nail down. The
rough cuts had several more characters and heavier political overtones. Early
test screenings with wonderfully opinionated colleagues helped steer our course
and keep it as personal as possible.

IDA:
As you've screened Kassim The Dream-whether on the festival circuit, or in
screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film?
What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

KD: Audiences overall
have been enthusiastic, emotional and inspired. The most interesting Q&A
was at SilverDocs, where two Ugandan Army officials showed up. As Kassim and I
took questions from the audience, they stood up and denied that the rebel army
in 1986 ever kidnapped children. The audience booed them off of the
microphones, and the tension made for a great evening.

IDA:
What docs or docmakers have served as
inspirations for you?

KD: Errol Morris, Werner Herzog,
the Maysles brothers. The Staircase, by
Jean-Xavier de Lestrade, is one of my favorite doc series.

The
winning films in the Feature Documentary and Short Documentary categories will
be announced at the IDA Awards on Friday, December 5, at the Directors Guild of
America Theater, 7920 Sunset Boulevard, and will be screened the next day,
December 6, as part of DocuFest at the Eastman Kodak Screening Room, 6700 Santa Monica Boulevard.

For
more information about the IDA Awards, click here. For more information
about DocuFest, click
here.

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