About 40 million people are currently refugees—unable to return to their homeland on account of persecution stemming from social and political reasons.
A new movie from Walden Media, “I Am David,” tells a fictional but powerful story about one refugee in a time and place most Americans have forgotten or never even knew.
The film, which opens today in limited release across the nation (click here for locations), follows a 12-year-old boy named David (Ben Tibber) as he escapes from a prison camp in Bulgaria in search of freedom.
It begins with a text crawl situating the action in Bulgaria’s Belene Prison Camp in 1952, noting that such forced labor camps housed dissidents from new governments set up after World War II.
We meet David right away as an unseen character gives him instructions on how to escape the camp. David is given a bag with some bread, a compass, a penknife, a bar of soap and—most important of all—a sealed letter. He’s told to make his way north and deliver the letter … to Denmark.
The opening sequence of David’s escape might stretch out a tad too long, but the ensuing journey makes up for it. David sets out for a land he’s never seen and a freedom he’s never experienced.
He performs chores for folks along the way, trying to earn money for food. David doesn’t know goodness, and he thinks he doesn’t deserve anything good.
He doesn’t smile, he doesn’t trust, he doesn’t love. Each stranger’s misdeed recalls a brutal moment from life in the camp. Most of all, David can’t stop thinking about his friend from camp, Johannes (Jim Caviezel), whose selfless act haunts David throughout the journey.
But when David comes across an elderly lady, Sophie (Joan Plowright), things begin to change. She tries to impress on David that most people are good; they have families and friends and want to lead happy lives. Their encounter transforms David’s life fundamentally.
“I Am David,” which has been endorsed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, is based on the 1963 children’s novel North to Freedom by Anne Holm.
It has already won several festival awards, including the Crystal Heart Award at the 2003 Heartland Film Festival. Tibber, who plays David, has also picked up several awards as most promising young actor. They are well deserved, for Tibber’s subtlety and understatement are remarkably powerful.
Kudos also belong to writer-director Paul Feig, best known for his short-lived but critically acclaimed TV show “Freaks and Geeks,” which was a sort of “Wonder Years” for the 1980s.
Feig’s projects make it clear that he understands and has an affinity for outsiders. Here, he controls the film and turns small, literal moments into emotionally big ones without adding syrup.
You’ll recognize Caviezel as the man who portrayed Jesus in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” Look closely, and you’ll see that the man who runs the concentration camp is played by Hristo Shopov—who also played Pontius Pilate in “The Passion.”
Even though Caviezel’s face is all over the film’s marketing, he’s not in the movie much. He turns in a good performance, though. So does Joan Plowright, who is absolutely lovely.
At times, “I Am David” feels like Steven Spielberg’s “The Empire of the Sun,” which also traces the path of a young man torn from his family amid civil strife. “David” doesn’t play out on the scope of “Empire,” but it is touching nevertheless.
With exceptional performances, mystery surrounding the letter in David’s bag, and genuine care taken for the journey of this youthful refugee, “I Am David” is a splendid film that young and old can experience together.
Cliff Vaughn is culture editor for EthicsDaily.com.
MPAA Rating: PG for thematic elements and violent content. Reviewer’s Note: David witnesses some brutality in the camp, but the violence is not very graphic.
Director: Paul Feig
Writer: Paul Feig (based on the novel by Anne Holm)
Cast: David: Ben Tibber; Johannes: Jim Caviezel; Sophie: Joan Plowright; The Man: Hristo Shopov.
The movie’s official Web site is here. The site also offers an educator’s guide for using the film to teach students about history, refugees and more.