dir. Carroll Ballard
South Africa, 2005
We all hope for a best friend. A person who can understand our motives, our reasoning, and have a similar idea as to how the world should look. This importance of this kind of understanding is especially the case when we’re children. There is something quite encouraging when a person invites you to join their lunch table knowing it’s simply because they like you for you.
Duma is a story of friendship. It is a story of what it means to trust. It is a story of adventure and what it means to become an adult. The catch? The boy’s best friend is in the form of a spotted tailed, 60 miles-per-hour sprinting quadruped.
That’s right, a cheetah. Apparently, the dog’s best friend status has been usurped.
Shot in the beautiful and harsh desert country of South Africa, Duma is the story of Xan, a white South African boy who raises a cheetah as a cub. When his family undergoes a series of tumultuous events, Xan takes it upon himself to return the cheetah, Duma, to the wild. Thus begins an adventure of the extremes - weather, hunger, thirst, wildlife, but most of all, trust.
Duma follows the typical ‘boy and dog’ story, but with a more sophisticated edge. Obviously some of it derives from the fact that Duma is a cheetah, but the story’s added elements brings something new to the table.
The issue of racial inequality has been a focus on South African society for many years throughout the 20th century. Though officially no longer an official policy (especially since the 1994 election victory of Nelson Mandela), many of the stories that come out of South Africa are entrenched in this issue - District 9, Blood Diamond to name a few. Duma provides a look into this when Xan becomes friends in the South African desert with a black South African man named Ripkuna (played excellently by Eamonn Walker). Through hardship and life-threatening situations, trust slowly cements between them until it is evident: they need each other in order to survive. The film provides a valuable perspective - less so in its effectiveness, but more so the kind of audience that its perspective can reach - children. I’ve often believed that issues that deal with more deep-rooted social problems - racism, poverty, human trafficking, etc. - can be very difficult to show to children without sugar-coating the issue to make it watchable for youngsters. Some films succeed, like the portrayal of racism in Boaz Yatkin’s Remember the Titans. Though not a perfect film, Titans provides an honest look into the glaring race issue during the tumultuous American years of the 1970’s in such a way that the entire family can watch and discuss. Duma, though different, touches on apartheid with the similar type of perspective - the lesson that friendship is not based on race. It is based on trust in your fellow man.
Many film set in the wilderness capture beautiful shots of majestic peaks or roaring rivers to create a sense of wonder and adventure. Duma does a magnificent job capturing the raw wild of the South African wilderness, but it also goes another step further. The footage of the cheetah itself and what the creature does throughout the story is extraordinary. I give a large amount of credit to the trainers and filmmakers for the patience and persistence it must have taken to capture such material. By far one of the best parts of the film.
Duma is by no means an extraordinary film, but it is a memorable tale. Well worth the watch and to digest the kind of themes that the film is discussing, in particular with family. To discuss what makes a good friend is an elemental question for a child to better understand, and what better way to introduce the idea through an adventurous film like Duma. Even if most of the potential friends out there aren’t capable of running 60 miles-per-hour.
Storytelling - 3.5/5
The pacing of the story was neither riveting nor dull. It was right in the middle, being interesting enough to be engaged to the adventure at hand. Much of this simply comes from the intrigue of Xan having a cheetah as a friend. In many ways, the film’s pacing is a refreshing departure from so many films for kids that focus on lightning-fast pacing of plot and over-the-top special effects. This story is quite pleasant, and it paces like someone reading a story to a child with a real book, instead of on an iPad.
Directing - 4/5
Carroll Ballard’s direction gives the story it’s edge. His work is both patient and brave in working with two categories of so often avoided categories of acting - animals and children. The fact that Ballard and the team was focusing on a story that had those two categories be in constant interaction throughout the film speaks towards both the confidence and courage that he had towards approaching the work.
Acting - 4/5
A consistently well-acted ensemble performance helps make the performance of the cheetah all the more memorable. Well-acted performance across the board.
Production Design 4/5
The production design by Johnny Breedt is well done, and creates a well-crafted look into the vastness of the South African wilderness. His work benefits from the excellent cinematography work by Werner Meritz as well (one of the best production aspects of the film).
Music - 3.5/5
Though nothing too special, the film score by George Acogny & John Debney is a good match with the rest of the film’s story, providing a rich accompaniment to the scope of the adventure that is Duma.
FINAL THOUGHT - For those of you who may be interested, Anthony, the cheetah who plays Duma, and many other animals, are owned and cared for by the Michaletos family in South Africa. Alexander Michaletos plays the role of Xan in the film, bringing an even greater evidence of not simply the strength of the trainers - it is the strength of the friendship between Alexander and Anthony as well. Information on the family and their work can be found here - http://www.farminn.co.za/