I Am David


REVIEW by Willard Manus

Countless films, books, plays and TV dramas have explored the theme of children in jeopardy, the latest of which is I AM DAVID, a Lions Gate/Walden Media release starring Ben Tibber, a British 12-year-old who carries a large part of the film on his back. Tibber is helped by the strong performances of Joan Plowright and Jim Caviezel in supporting roles, not to speak of the superb script and direction of Paul Feig (creator of TV's Freaks and Geeks).

I AM DAVID is based on Danish writer Anne Holmes's best-selling 1963 novel of the same name, which until recently was published in the U.S. as North to Freedom. The book was better known in Europe and England, which is where producer Lauren Levine read it as a young child. "I was transported by the book," she said. "Like all great writing, it drew me in, and even though David was in the middle of a situation I couldn't imagine, I empathized with him. I related to his need to be safe and his discovery of things we so often take for granted. I've always wanted to see the book become a film because I think so many people, adults and kids alike, will connect with David's adventure."

Levine pursued her dream for years and finally was able to put together the financing for the project. I AM DAVID was shot in Bulgaria, but not just for economic reasons. The story is set largely in that country, starting with a powerful sequence in a post-WW II concentration camp. Much is known about the political prisons in the Soviet Union, almost nothing about the similar institutions in then-communist Bulgaria, where, beginning with a 1945 campaign to halt all dissident activity in the country and continuing for several decades, hundreds of thousands were torn from their homes by secret police and put behind bars after mock-trials. Husbands and wives, children and their parents were often separated, quickly and cruelly.

David is one of those children. Taken to a labor camp at a young age, he has never really known the outside world, only the grim brutality of his immediate surroundings, depicted with harrowing realism by Feig and his cinematographer, Roman Osin (who also shot the gripping Cypriot movie, Under the Stars.) Composer Stewart Copeland (former member of the seminal band, The Police) is responsible for the film's hard-driving, complex score.

As a child of the camps, David has been told that if he is to survive he must trust no one, believe in nothing but himself. His one friend and mentor is a fellow prisoner, Johannes (Caviezel, in his last role before The Passion of Christ). Johannes helps David to escape the gulag, giving him an envelope containing secret documents, a compass and a small bar of soap. His only instructions are to head north, destination Denmark (a country he has never even haeard of).

After the escape, it's David against the world, a small boy against immense odds and danger. I AM DAVID is partly an adventure story, partly a saga of self-discovery. After being pursued through Bulgarian forests by police and dogs, David makesd it to peaceful and beautiful Italy and Switzerland, thanks to his toughness and survival skills.

It isn't until he meets Sophie, a British painter (Plowright), that he can truly begin to trust and believe in life, thanks to her wisdom, sensitivity and humanity. David's passage into safety and maturity is well-dramatized and the story's tender, heartwarming conclusion is doubtlessly the main reason for the numerous awards I AM DAVID has won at film festivals around the world.