Kassim the Dream [subtitled in part]

Kassim the Dream

Kassim “the Dream” Ouma is a boxer from Uganda. Fighting in the junior middleweight and middleweight classes, he has put together a solid career since his debut in 1998, including winning (one of the multiple versions of) the junior middleweight title in 2004 and challenging for (one of the multiple versions of) the middleweight title twice. The documentary Kassim the Dream is from 2009, but his career has continued beyond that, albeit only part time and not very successfully, as after 2006 he has only fought an average of once a year and has lost more than he has won.

I was a huge boxing fan in childhood and early adulthood, but drifted away from the sport after that. There was a time when I definitely would have been familiar with anyone boxing at Ouma’s level, but no more. I had never heard of him before watching this movie.

Kassim the Dream is for the most part not a sports documentary. There is some footage from a couple of his fights, but really it doesn’t tell the story of his career in any detail. (I had to look up his record online in order to write the first paragraph above. You could only get maybe 25% of that from the movie.)

Instead, Kassim the Dream is a documentary about one of the survivors of one of the absolute worst hellholes on Earth (which is really saying something, given the competition) who happens to be a boxer. It’s much more about him as a human being, his family, and the political and military situation in Uganda than about boxing.

Like almost all Ugandans, Ouma was born in poverty in a rural village. He was sent to a boarding school nearby, where at age 6 he and the other children were kidnapped into a rebel army led by Yoweri Museveni.

It was a commonplace event in that part of the world, where the ruling regimes and the rebels are in a constant competition to see who can be the most appallingly inhumane. The regimes and the rebels change (in Uganda, Museveni fought against such notable tyrants as Idi Amin and Milton Obote before assuming power himself, and immediately similar rebel groups, including the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army, sprang up to confront him), but the tactics don’t. Both sides continue fighting in such a way that makes ordinary war seem like something out of the Sermon on the Mount.

In such a raid, the children who are not killed are taken on as either soldiers themselves (the boys) or sex slaves (the girls). The new child soldiers are quickly trained to torture and kill—or they will be tortured and killed themselves if they refuse—and to bring more such recruits into the rebel army in a self-perpetuating cycle of horror.

Ouma speaks of how hard it was at first to torture fellow children—hanging them by their testicles and such—especially since some were friends of his, but he did it, and indeed eventually relished it, describing it in an interview as having become “fun.” It sounds like the kid soldiers were kept stoned most of the time, which no doubt facilitated the changing attitudes.

Ouma lived that way for years until this particular set of rebels won. At that point the rebel army, including Ouma, in effect became the Ugandan army. One gets the impression that once Ouma was broken, he pretty much continued conforming into adulthood, living what passes for a normal life in Uganda. He learned to box in the army, and had a kid (actually two from what I read later, but only one is mentioned in Kassim the Dream).

He eventually escaped, though, to America. He didn’t yet speak English. He wandered into the first boxing gym he came across, and gestured to make it understood that he wanted to be a boxer. He learned English over time as he commenced his successful boxing career under the tutelage of manager Tom Moran.

Moran is a very positive character in the film, serving as a mentor and father figure to Ouma, who affectionately calls him “Uncle Tom.” I did some reading about Ouma online, and I get the impression that this portrait of Moran is not misleading at all, that he is in fact one of the few good guys in the boxing world.

Meanwhile, Ouma was in terrible trouble back in Uganda, since to them he was a military deserter, which, like pretty much anything down to jaywalking, is regarded as warranting death.

Since he was out of their reach, Ugandan officials did the next best thing and punished his family. As described by Ouma’s mother, who herself was eventually able to escape from Uganda and join her son in America, soldiers came to the Ouma home and brutally beat and murdered Ouma’s father.

I’m sure a nightmarish childhood like Ouma’s doesn’t affect everyone identically, but you have to think a lot of what you see in him today can be attributed to the almost unimaginable horrors he witnessed, inflicted, and survived.

Externally at least, he is not depressed, suicidal with guilt, or anything like that. Actually he’s very much a happy-go-lucky kind of guy, to the point of being immature and irresponsible, as perhaps he tries to live like a child now since he couldn’t then.

He loves being surrounded by party-type young people—the sort of folks who glom onto anyone who achieves fame, wealth, or success in life and doesn’t have the sense to kick them to the curb. His seriousness about his boxing career comes and goes; at times he trains as hard as anyone, but then for long periods he’s lackadaisical about it as he just wants to have fun and party.

He’s a frequent pot smoker. (This is idiotic for a professional athlete, as it means you’re risking your career if you’re unlucky as to the timing of a drug test. Moran tries to impress this upon him, but he dismisses it, explaining that if anyone has had a life that excuses a drug habit it’s him. Had he not been high for years on end in childhood he would never have been able to do the things he did, he notes, and had he not done those things he wouldn’t be alive today.) I read that he was arrested for cocaine in 2015.

Shortly after arriving in this country he got someone pregnant and soon broke up with her. She is quickly passed over in the film, but Ouma apparently has either sole or joint custody of their son, since he seems to always be with Ouma. Then his son from Uganda is brought to the U.S. to join him, with again little or nothing being said about whoever he got pregnant in that country nor that other aforementioned Ugandan child of his.

I will say that in his way he’s very family-oriented, which again is presumably related to his having been deprived of a family life for most of his time in Uganda. He absolutely delights in his two boys. It doesn’t look like he’s just going through the motions for the camera; he seems utterly fascinated by them and committed to them. I would bet they’re totally spoiled. You get the impression his highest priority is that they have all the happiness it’s possible to experience in childhood—the complete opposite of his own childhood.

As much as boxing can at times be a big deal to him, as he speaks with emotion of being a champion and being the best he can be, it pales in comparison to his devotion to his sons.

But he’s also very family-oriented when it comes to those he left behind in Uganda, and for that matter surprisingly devoted to Uganda itself. I say “surprisingly,” because I would think if I had experiences some place like he had there I would want to get as far away from it as possible, think about it as little as possible, and hopefully never have any connection with it again. But he consistently speaks of how much he loves and misses Uganda. He is clearly emotionally torn by having to live so far from almost all of his extended family, his village, and the country he still calls his “home” where his heart remains.

Nor does he distinguish between Uganda and its present regime. He doesn’t say he loves Uganda and hates its current rulers. He doesn’t say his desire to return home to Uganda is predicated on the current regime being replaced.

Maybe that’s because the present chaos is the only Ugandan life he knows, and thus to him it’s normal, just the way life is, with its terrors being akin to acts of God like hurricanes. After all, whoever at any given time happens to occupy the roles of “government” or “rebels” behaves so as to make Satan blush, so how do you single one of them out and long for them to be replaced?

Much of the second half of Kassim the Dream is about Ouma’s return visit to Uganda, preceded by his efforts to obtain permission from the Museveni government to make the trip. He’s asked in an interview about the conflict between himself and the Museveni regime and he responds “I have no problem with the president.”

Really? You have no problem with the leader of the group who kidnapped you at age 6, tortured and murdered children and forced you to do the same, and murdered your father, among other things?

Obviously you can say that given the circumstances he’s just saying whatever he thinks he needs to say to have a chance to return home to see his family, and maybe get more of them out of the country, but that doesn’t match his demeanor. If anything he seems puzzled by the question, like “Why would I have a problem with the president?”

Maybe, like I say, it’s because the actions of people like Museveri and his goons just seem like normal human behavior to him now. Or maybe he’s ended up in a place as a result of all he’s been forced to do where he can never make moral judgments about himself and survive psychologically, so his ability to make moral judgments about anyone has been pretty much shut down in the process.

One of the most sickening scenes in the film is when he and Moran visit the Ugandan ambassador to the United States in an effort to enlist his help in gaining permission for Ouma to return to Uganda. The oleaginous ambassador couldn’t be more polite to Ouma, as he smilingly praises him for his obvious love of country and assures him he’ll do everything in his power to advocate for him with the government, noting that of course it goes without saying that Ouma now realizes how wrong he was to desert and how no doubt he and his family will want to humbly apologize to the regime for their misdeeds and explain how they’ve come to see things in a new light. Talk about an evil, patronizing cocksucker.

Eventually permission is granted and Ouma returns for a visit to Uganda. He is very nervous anticipating the trip and then during the visit itself, as he doesn’t trust the Ugandan government to honor their word (with good reason). Though he is accompanied by Moran and this documentary film crew, he knows this won’t stop the government from snatching him and killing him or throwing him in prison if they’re of a mind to. He just has to hope that it’s more in their self-interest to benefit from the positive publicity of a happy champion returning home and talking up Uganda.

One thing that kept going through my head watching Kassim the Dream is how I would expect someone with Ouma’s past to come across, or how I think would be appropriate. The happy-go-lucky, overgrown kid thing is understandable to a degree, but how fitting is it? How can you possibly even live with yourself, let alone go through life with that kind of joyfully goofy attitude, after you’ve done the kinds of things he’s done, after you’ve gotten stoned and hung children—friends of yours—by their testicles and enjoyed it?

I’m of two minds about that. Part of me—most of me, in fact—responds the way I think the vast majority of people would. That is, that given that we’re talking about things he was coerced into doing, which furthermore were things he did either as a very young child or as the later product of brainwashing he received as a very young child, he’s not responsible, he should feel no guilt, and God bless him if by some miracle he’s eventually able to achieve happiness and a decent life. That part of me applauds him, is happy for him, and is quite impressed by him.

But another, smaller, part of me still has that gnawing thought that there’s something off about one who has sunk as low as he has—coerced or not, child at the time or not—dancing carefree through life with no visible remorse. But if so, what’s the alternative? Is he obligated to kill himself? To be so remorseful as to be unable to function? To spend his entire life obsessed with making amends for what he’s done?

No. Or I don’t know. I think no.

If the scars of doing things like that aren’t as devastating as in the case of, say, Sophie in Sophie’s Choice, can you be regarded as a morally serious person? Or is it in fact a sign of greater maturity if you are able to get on with your life reasonably well without succumbing to such overwhelming guilt?

An indication that I lean more toward absolving him and wanting him to be happy is that I found him a genuinely likable guy, and I instinctively rooted for him in the boxing matches shown in the film.

Another thing I think about in connection with this—and I’ve thought about this not infrequently in other contexts—is that in so many situations in life, moral scruples are not at all conducive to survival.

There are circumstances in which if you’re going to be a goody goody who won’t follow the orders of your commander in a rebel army and hack off the body parts one by one of some hapless fellow in front of his family while he screams in agony, then you won’t survive. If you will follow such orders, then you will survive. Simple as that.

Same with accepting being drafted into an army fighting an unjust war, lying and cheating in business, law, or politics, etc. If you’re too pure to play the game the way it’s played, you’ll lose out to those who aren’t. As a martyr to principles you’ll be admirable (well, to someone like me you will be, not to the masses who judge according to the pragmatism of how well one achieves one’s ends), but as a martyr you’ll also be dead.

Which would seem to mean, if we look at it from a Darwinian perspective, that natural selection favors the ruthless, the people who find ways to rationalize any horrible thing they do when the alternative is to die without passing on their genes.

Then again, I don’t know that history really supports that theory. It seems we’ve always had a mix of, mostly, people who do whatever they need to do to survive and aren’t held back by moral considerations, and a lesser number of people who have principles that cause them to say “Here I stand; I can do no other!” even when it means accepting martyrdom, and if anything I’d say the world is a slightly more humane place with a slightly greater percentage of principled people in the present than maybe any time in the past. So if anything there’s been some slight evolutionary move against being maximally ruthless and without conscience. Not enough, probably, to prevent extinction or near-extinction in the short-to-intermediate future as we continue to act as a species with stunning selfishness, violence, and stupidity, but some movement in that direction.

That’s the sort of thing I think about when confronted by the kind of evil described in Kassim the Dream.

But returning to Ouma’s time in Uganda, there are some really powerful scenes in that portion of the film, including some that shake Ouma out of his usual carefree, happy, fun-loving persona to something a lot more emotionally raw.

We see him visit a makeshift boxing club in an internal refugee camp where people have fled the latest rebels and their atrocities. There he observes children with the same dream he once had. Only some tiny fraction of 1% of them will end up professional fighters, and probably zero will achieve the level of success in the field that he has, but at least it gives them some kind of hope that they might have a future, some reason to stay alive another day. Ouma is visibly moved and energized by being around these youngsters and offering them pointers.

In a remote village, Ouma watches a play the local people have put together to preserve the memory of what it is like when a rebel band comes on a mission of massacre and child kidnapping/recruitment. It is quite gory and unflinchingly realistic in its depiction of the terror and violence. It’s very much the kind of raid Ouma fell victim to at age 6, and then participated in as a perpetrator countless times after that.

Presumably they’re able to get away with staging such a play because nominally it’s about the current rebels who oppose the Museveni regime, but obviously it applies just as well to any of the constantly changing Ugandan rebels and government, including when the Museveni hoodlums were the ones in the rebel role.

Ouma is overcome with emotion and cannot stay to the end of the play.

Then there are the interviews with Ugandan children recounting pasts like that of Ouma, all the horrific things they’ve seen and the horrific things they’ve done. Children.

When Ouma arrives back in his village, he visits his father’s grave, the man who paid with his life when Ouma escaped from the country. In a heart-wrenching scene, the carefree, overgrown kid image finally falls away entirely as he sobs and wails uncontrollably and repeatedly begs for forgiveness.

By the end of the film, Ouma is truly indecisive about where he belongs. Despite the horrible memories he has associated with Uganda, and the comparatively miserable life he would surely have there compared to returning to the U.S., the pull of home on him is still incredibly strong. This is where the bulk of his family is, where the spirit of his ancestors is, where he has been taught his whole life he belongs.

Kassim the Dream is a reasonably well-made documentary, nothing that stands out as excellent, but its subject matter is so powerful as to render it a must-see or close to it. I certainly got caught up in Ouma’s story.

In closing, I’ll note that I have labeled this film as “subtitled in part” not because part of it is in a foreign language, but because when Ouma, his family members, or anyone else in the film with a heavy accent speaks, even though it is in English it is subtitled. That’s something I wish more filmmakers would do, as it definitely helps the viewer not to miss some of the dialogue.

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