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SLIFF 11/16: What a lineup

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: November 15, 2008 - "Kassim the Dream" is an documentary film that works on two levels, first as an intimate look inside the private life of an athlete at the peak of his abilities, and second, as a harrowing examination of a serious human rights crisis. One aspect is uplifting, the other devastating; By the end of this exceptional film, the two threads have been sewn together into a single powerful story.

Kassim Ouma is a young light middleweight boxer who rose quickly within his division, (he held the championship title in 2004), but whose rapid success in a sport known for big paychecks and extravagance came only after growing up under nightmarish circumstances that still haunt him today. At the age of 6, Ouma was kidnapped by a rebel army in his home country of Uganda, forced to murder and torture his own countrymen. When the rebel forces won, Ouma remained in the army and, as a teenager, learned to box, eventually earning a slot of his country's Olympic team.

Still wary of a government whose cruelty he knew too well, he saw his Olympics visa as a way to escape and, in 1998, at just 19 years old, defected to the United States with no money, no contacts and nothing to rely on but his boxing skills.

Filmmaker Kief Davidson catches Ouma at a high point in his boxing career, simultaneously preparing for a title match while reuniting with the 9-year-old son he had left behind in Uganda. He's engaging, jovial, and not all that different from any young man who had come into money and fame in a short amount of time. But he's also tormented by guilt over his past, especially over the loss of his father, who was beaten to death by soldiers after Ouma's defection. He's subject to nightmares about his brutal childhood and more than a little uncertain of his future. His emotional ties to his home country are strong, but he worries about being able to return there safely. (And with good reason; he has been charged with desertion, a capital offense).

But finally, after recruiting the support of both the U.S. Congress and the Ugandan ambassador, Ouma makes a dramatic return visit to his home country, to which Davidson devotes the entire final third of the film. It's an uneasy occasion on many levels, and Ouma's nervousness is apparent. For the filmmaker, it's an amazing opportunity to address his subject's past more thoroughly, visiting the schoolroom where he was abducted, watching a village perform a theatrical recreation of a massacre, and filming a new generation of child-soldiers facing the same horrors that Ouma survived.

"Kassim the Dream" is first-rate documentary filmmaking, judiciously edited and beautifully photographed (including some of the most jaw-droppingly detailed boxing footage I've ever seen). Davidson aims for a personal view as well as a one, a private story that corresponds with a political one. He succeeds on every level.

The Objective

It's hard to believe that almost a decade has passed since two unknown filmmakers, Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sanchez, launched an innovative, almost subterranean internet campaign that turned "The Blair Witch Project" into the most successful independent film of all time. But where have they been since? While "Blair Witch" came close to become a media franchise, with a sequel, a series of novels, a comic book and even bubblegum cards, Sanchez and Wyrick have barely been heard from. (An ironic equivalent to the fates of the unlucky filmmakers in their film?) After a failed TV series and a stalled effort to create a prequel, their subsequent films – made individually – have gone straight to video with little fanfare.

It is a pleasant surprise to see from Myrick's latest film "The Objective" that the promise shown in "Blair Witch" wasn't a fluke. There are many of the same elements – mysterious events, half-recalled legends, and a small group of people making their way through threatening and unfamiliar territory – but without the subjective camera and do-it-yourself sensibility of the earlier film. Shorn of those gimmicks, Myrick offers competent, economical filmmaking, strong acting and - once again - a sense that something very bad and unexplainable is about to happen.

"The Objective" takes place in Afghanistan, where a CIA agent leads a team of special-ops soldiers into the mountains, ostensibly looking for a local religious leader but actually more concerned with tracking down whatever is causing all kinds of strange glowing material to turn up on his high-tech flat-screen video camera. There are intentional nods toward "Apocalypse Now," especially in the narration of the somewhat evasive agent. As tensions grow among the unit and odd things start to happen, the film strikes a nice balance between the military-plans-gone-wrong ambience of Coppola's film (on a smaller scale, of course) and the lost-and-helpless confusion of the "Blair Witch" victims.

The exotic combat setting aside (one of the co-author's was Wesley Clark Jr., son of the general), "The Objective" is a pleasantly straight-forward science-fiction/horror tale, directed efficiently and engagingly by Myrick. This is crisp, capable genre filmmaking, at times recalling the low-budget directness of early Roger Corman, or the trippy existential Westerns Monte Hellman and Jack Nicholson made in the '60s. Yes, it's far-fetched and kind of silly, but with a refreshing lack of pretension. With some genres, that makes all the difference.

Short takes:

That All May Be One

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet - committed to community service and active in social-justice pursuits - prove fiercely intelligent, passionately engaged and delightfully good-humored.

The Stem Cell Divide

The film covers two years of controversy in Missouri. The questions of when life begins and whether the hope for cures should override religious beliefs are eternal quandaries. Those questions elicit thoughtful, emotional responses from both sides of the debate.

Number One With a Bullet

This harrowing film explores the interrelationships between guns, poverty, drugs, hip-hop culture and cultural violence, showing how the music industry has glorifyied violence for profit.


Tickell, a leading expert on alternative fuels, takes the audience on a revelatory journey to explore America's addiction to oil, from its historical origins to current alternatives.

Who Does She Think She Is? 

Even in today's supposedly liberated world, women are often expected to choose between working as artists and caring for children. Here are five bold women who refuse to choose, instead striking a balance between mothering and creativity.

Katrina's Children

Told entirely from the viewpoint of 19 children, ages 5-13, from different neighborhoods of New Orleans, the film captures with vivid poignancy the tragic ramifications of the great manmade and natural disaster.


The remarkable Dervaes family - father, son and two daughters - runs a small organic farm in the heart of urban Pasadena, Calif. The film portrays urban pioneers living a "Little House on the Prairie" existence in the 21st century.

Martino Unstrung

Neuropsychologist and author Paul Broks travels America in search of the soul of legendary jazz guitarist Pat Martino, silenced by memory-stripping brain surgery to remove a tumor. Broks explores the nature of memory, self, creativity and the brain systems underlying personal identity.


In this multilayered portrait of modern India, auto-rickshaw driver Amal is content driving customers around New Delhi. But his simple life is upended when an eccentric, aging billionaire bequeaths Amal his entire estate.

Faro, Goddess of the Waters (Faro, la reine des eaux)

An engineer returns to the rural village of his birth to uncover the identity of his father and start a waterworks project. His arrival coincides with the drowning of a young villager and village elders determine that sacrifice is needed to appearse Faro, the spirit who rules the waters.


In this moving true story of apartheid-era South Africa, Sandra is born with distinctively African features despite having two white Afrikaner parents. She defiantly opts to reclassify herself as "colored" when she becomes an adult, causing a painful and seemingly irreconcilable break with her family.

Stolen Holidays (Les Petites vacances)

Each school holiday, Daniele accompanies her grandchildren on the train that takes them to the south of France, where her daughter's ex-husband lives. When the father isn't there, she takes them on a "stolen holiday."

Under the Bombs (Sous les bombes)

During a ceasefire in the Lebanon-Israel conflict, a Christian taxi driver transports a Shiite woman from Beirut to the heart of the conflict to find her son. They discover a common bond despite their very different backgrounds.

The Grocer's Son (Le Fils de l'epicier)

When his father becomes ill, Antoine - immature at 30 years old - reluctantly leaves Paris for Provence, where he must take up the family business. Accompanied by Claire, a friend on whom he has a secret crush, Antoine gradually warms to the initially gruff villagers.

Not by Chance (Nao Por Acaso)

Enio, a traffic-control supervisor, and Pedro, an obsessive pool player, find comfort in their measured, mathematically exact lives. However, the sudden deaths of Enio's ex-wife and Pedo's wife upend the men's stable existences.

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

Adapted from the children's novel, the movie is a fable about the untold number of children who were sent to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. The lives of a commandant's and a Jewish boy, separated by a barbed-wire fence, become intertwined.

The Inferno

The first full-length Italian film ever made, "The Inferno" is a wild re-imagining of Dante's epic, an extremely loose adaptation that takes inspiration from the illustrations of Gustav Dore to conjure its visions of hell. With live musical accompaniment by the New Music Circle.

Throw Down Your Heart

Virtuoso musician Bela Fleck takes his banjo on a journey to Africa to explore the little-known African roots of his instrument and record an album. His musical adventure takes him to Mali, Gambia, Uganda and Tanzania.

Wendy and Lucy

Down-at-heels Wendy, begins a road trip that's intended to take her to a job in Alaska, but her car breaks down, touching off a series of economic disasters the includes the impoundment of beloved dog Lucy.


Go behind the scenes at the 34th Miss Gay America contest, in which 52 men compete for the crown as the premier female impersonator. The movie follows five of the contest's most talented and beautiful female impersonators.

Sinner Come Home

In a forgotten Midwest town at the onset of winter, Eddie Farnim tolerates a mundane existence while his adoring wife, Jan, prays for a child and a simple life. As tensions rise at home, Eddie spends more time out and catches the eye of his boss' wife, who feeds Eddie bad advice.

Traces of the Trade

Co-director Browne's New England ancestors, the deWolfs, were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history. At Browne's urging, nine fellow descendants journey with her on trips to Ghana and Cuba, retracing the steps of the Triangle Trade.

A Good Day to Be Black and Sexy

A series of six comedic vignettes set in Los Angeles, the film doesn't shy away from the more controversial aspects of contemporary relationships but finds abundant (if uncomfortable) humor in them.

Luxury Car (Jiang Cheng Xia Ri)

In this emotionally taut film, a father travels from his small village to the city of Wuhan, determined to fulfill his wife's last wish that he see their son. Instead, he discovers his daughter working as a karaoke-bar escort, forcing him to come to terms with their long-estranged relationship.

All for Free (Sve Dzaba)

After his friends are killed in a bizarre barroom argument, Goran decides he will deal with the loss by selling sell his house, buying a mobile tavern and traveling around Bosnia, giving away free drinks to everyone he meets.

Blessed Is the Match

Hannah Senesh, the Hungarian poet and diarist, became a paratrooper, resistance fighter and modern-day Joan of Arc. Safe in Palestine in 1944, Hannah joined the only military rescue mission for Jews during the Holocaust.

Fashion Victims (Reine Geschmacksache)

In this madcap comedy, a middle-aged traveling salesman of ladies' fashion loses his driver's license just as a young competitor threatens to steal his best customers.

It's Hard to Be Nice (Tesko je biti fin)

Fudo, a 40-year-old taxi driver, wants to be good, but he lives in the wrong time and place: contemporary Sarajevo.

The Grocer's Son (Le Fils de l'epicier)

When his father becomes ill, Antoine - immature at 30 years old - reluctantly leaves Paris for Provence, where he must take up the family business. Accompanied by Claire, a friend on whom he has a secret crush, Antoine gradually warms to the initially gruff villagers.


Comic-book-obsessed Les Franken leads a painfully unremarkable life. But when he enrolls in a study for an experimental anti-depressant, the drug has unexpected side effects, and Les becomes convinced he is developing special powers.

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