NEW YORK (Reuters) - What struck U.S. filmmaker Kief Davidson about Ugandan child soldier turned world champion boxer Kassim “The Dream” Ouma was that he was always smiling.
Davidson became fascinated by how Ouma, kidnapped from school at age 6 by the rebel army of Yoweri Museveni — who is now Uganda’s president — dealt with his nightmare past.
More than two years after first seeing Ouma on a TV news segment, Davidson’s beautifully shot documentary, “Kassim The Dream,” debuted on Friday at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival. In the film, Davidson tells the story of Ouma’s first journey back to Uganda since he fled to the United States in 1998.
The filming took place last year during a cease-fire between Museveni’s government and the rebel Lord’s Resistance Army.
But one of Africa’s longest wars rages on, after nearly two years of negotiations collapsed in early April. The 22-year civil war has killed tens of thousands of people and uprooted 2 million more in northern Uganda alone.
Ouma, who learned to box in the army, fled to the United States when he was 19 using a visa given to him for a military boxing championship. He arrived homeless and unable to speak English, at one point handing out pizza fliers before finding a boxing gym, where his talent became apparent.
“Boxing was my way out and it’s my therapy,” said Ouma, 29.
And it was his boxing fame, in particular his high-profile match against reigning middleweight champion Jermain Taylor that helped him obtain a pardon from Ugandan President Museveni and visit his homeland.
“For me, the story was Kassim getting back to Africa,” Davidson said in an interview. “He was wanted for desertion, but because of his status there was the potential of a pardon. The fight with Jermain Taylor, which he lost, was the fight that opened up the doors to him going back.
“Kassim was afraid that it was a trick. The military had said before if he ever set foot in Uganda he would be tried for desertion and the punishment for desertion is death.”
But, Davidson said, Ouma saw the cameras as his built-in protection, as the crew had the support of U.S. senators and nonprofit groups who helped Ouma get the pardon.
“We made it very clear that if we go and something happens it won’t go silent,” said Davidson, who won more than a dozen awards for his 2005 film “The Devil’s Miner.”
Davidson was also concerned some people might have a vendetta against Ouma. “Who knows who he has killed in the past? He was a victim and a perpetrator,” Davidson said.
Ouma hopes the film will raise awareness about the plight of child soldiers and the people living in displacement camps, afraid to return to their villages.
“It’s hard to talk about my childhood. But my heart is still with my people in Africa, and I have to spread the word,” he said. “The most important thing is to never give up hope. They stole my childhood, but I never gave up hope.”
Ouma won the International Boxing Federation’s world junior light middleweight title in 2004 and holds records for the most punches thrown in a fight. He is raring to get back in the ring for what he calls the second round of his career.
After boxing, Ouma said, with his trademark broad smile, he would like to star in some martial arts movies.
“I’m going to be the African Jet Li,” he said. “Watch out.”
Editing by Michelle Nichols and Philip Barbara