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Boxer and Former Child Soldier Kassim Ouma on His Tribeca Documentary

Photo: Nicolas Johnson/Courtesy of Urban Landscapes Productions

One of the most shattering documentaries at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, Kassim the Dream brings viewers into the world of Ugandan-born boxer Kassim Ouma, the 29-year-old former International Boxing Federation light-middleweight champion, and his struggle with his deadly past. Abducted from school at the age of 6 and forced to become a child soldier, Ouma fought in the National Resistance Army during Uganda’s harrowing “bush war” in the eighties, engaging in brutal acts that still haunt him to this day. Later, he discovered boxing and fled for the U.S. to try his hand at going pro. Since then, under the tutelage of his manager Tom Moran (whom he affectionately calls “Uncle Tom”), Ouma has become not only a renowned athlete but also an outspoken advocate for African issues. We spoke to him during a visit to New York for the Tribeca premiere of Kassim the Dream.

You say at the end of the film that you’re still trying to become the normal boy you once were. Do you think you’ll ever get there?
I’m still looking. I will always be looking. Put yourself in my shoes. You’re a child and you’ve been abducted. You don’t know nobody — don’t know who loves you and who doesn’t. They tell you to do horrible things, and you have to do them. They order you to kill your best friend — and if you don’t do it, they’ll kill you. What would you do? You kill him, to survive. So, I can never forget it. Every day, I think about it. I’m trying, but I don’t know if I’ll ever overcome it.

The film has a very harrowing sequence depicting you in a losing fight. Is it tough watching yourself get beaten on film?
It’s tough, of course. I really don’t like to lose. But now I say that I’m retired. Not retired forever — just for a few months, to get myself ready. This was the first half of my career. Now I want to start the second half of my career and come back stronger.

One of the most moving scenes in the film comes when you revisit Uganda for the first time since fleeing the army there. Were you scared to go back?
When I first arrived in Uganda, I was very scared. I didn’t know what would happen to me. When I returned to the army base that I left, I didn’t know what they would do to me. I have to give big ups to President [Yoweri] Museveni, who pardoned me. Then Uncle Tom told me I’d have to go to the north [where a conflict still rages between rebels and government forces]. I tried to resist, but when I went, I saw all these people who really needed help. It was very hard for me. I opened up a clinic there, but they still need more help. The most important issue is clean water — not just in Uganda, but in all of Africa.

Do you think politicians in Washington genuinely want to help Africa?
Uncle Tom and I go over there twice a year to talk about these issues. I think politicians in Washington want to help, just like everybody else. There are a lot of groups out there really helping — like the ONE Campaign. Celebrities like Oprah and Madonna have gotten involved in African problems. It’s all part of the same issue, the same fight. The problem is that even when food aid comes, the food doesn’t reach the people who need it.

Tom Moran says that you’re a political person, regardless of whether you want to be. Do you agree?
I don’t like to go against the government or anything like that. But if it’s political to help people, then I’m political.
—Bilge Ebiri

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Boxer and Former Child Soldier Kassim Ouma on His Tribeca Documentary