Kassim the Dream plays like a slightly glossier and more tasteful version of those pre-Super Bowl human-interest segments detailing the hard-luck backstory of one of the game’s participants, except that instead of crafting a five-minute profile, director Kief Davidson has turned in a feature-length film. Everybody loves an against-the-odds success story and Davidson’s got a doozy: Kidnapped by Ugandan rebels at the age of six, forced to commit atrocities as a child soldier, Kassim Ouma learned to box in the army barracks, came to America as part of an athletics delegation, and defected at the first opportunity. Ten years later, when the film begins, he’s the Junior Middleweight champion of the world, living in a posh home in south Florida, but still filled with guilt over his former life, especially the death of his father, who was killed in retaliation for his son’s defection.
Although Davidson makes some effort to avoid the blandly inspirational mode favored by the FOX Sports segment-makers, interspersing off-the-cuff footage of Kassim training for fights and playing with his family amid more conventional interview segments and a final tearjerking payoff, and though his story can’t help but prove compelling, the film seems like something of a missed opportunity. The director details both his subject’s present life in the ring and his past life on the battlefields, but there’s little attempt to draw any useful connections between the two. For example, Kassim claims that boxing became a form of therapy for him after all the atrocities he was forced to commit, a sentiment echoed by another child soldier later in the film. But while a picture like Raging Bull is canny in the way it connects in-the-ring and out-of-the-ring brutality, Davidson’s movie misses the mark by failing to take into account the essential similarities—as well as the inevitable differences—between the two forms of ordered, ritualized violence that his subject participated in at different points in his life. Although boxing offers Kassim a far greater autonomy than soldiering and though its consequences are far less dire, his new pursuit seems in many ways a natural continuation of his old one, a point that seems lost on the filmmaker.
While it may be short on insight, Davidson’s movie has one distinct advantage: Kassim himself. Evincing a perpetually cheerful demeanor, an irrepressible grin poking out from beneath his neatly arranged cornrows, the young boxer trades in a contagious optimism that makes him an appealing subject for a film profile. Although constantly reminded of his past, Kassim looks instead to the future, securing a visa for his son to join him in America and working to obtain a pardon from the Ugandan president for his desertion so that he can revisit his homeland. When he finally succeeds in returning to his native country, he meets with other child soldiers, reconnects with his grandmother, and in the film’s sentimental highlight, the director’s camera rudely intruding on a moment of personal catharsis, breaks down at his father’s grave. For Kassim, these tears are well earned. For Davidson and his audience, I’m not so sure.