"Torturing people, it was fun. Because I was young," Kassim Ouma, a Ugandan child soldier turned boxing champion, chillingly confesses in Kassim the Dream, now joining in theaters a sub-zeitgeist battery of pugilist pictures (Fighting, Tyson) after making the festival rounds. As Kassim's frank admission indicates, director Kief Davidson's documentary is darker and more complex than its audience-award track record or its opening sequence, in which a fighter-in-training jogs determinedly down a long and winding country road, might suggest. But however incredible Kassim's story, Davidson doesn't seem to be able to make up his mind about how exactly to tell it.
At age 6, Kassim was kidnapped from his school in Uganda and made a soldier, and at 18 he defected to the U.S. after arriving on a visa to box in a tournament. The film finds him at 29, a vivacious, voluble father of two living stateside and longing to return to Uganda, but fearful of a military reprisal for his desertion. Otherwise, Kassim appears very eager to distract himself from contemplating the horrors of his youth, sometimes to the probable detriment of his boxing career. Early on in the film, Kassim's handlers express concern about his tendency to throw parties in his room the week of a fight. Immediately after a crushing loss, Kassim is already searching for something to "confuse my head."
Davidson's film alternates awkwardly between a confessional of wrenching displacements and horrifying atrocities (reminiscent of last year's The Betrayal) and a rousing underdog sports saga that indulges in that genre's flagrant partiality. During the film's main athletic event, a 2006 title fight against Jermain Taylor, an Arkansan both bigger and a good deal less jovial than Kassim, Davidson certainly doesn't pull any punches. Quite the opposite: To underscore the toll of the match on Kassim, Davidson shows Taylor's hardest hits landing in brutal slow motion, calling into serious question the press materials' trumpeting of current-day events "filmed in cinema verite." Kassim the Dream is an intriguing character study that unfortunately tries to be a few too many other things as well.