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Meet the Filmmakers: Kief Davidson--Kassim The Dream

By Tom White

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.