"Things you know without knowing" is the phrase used in the marvelous family film, Duma, to explain a domesticated cheetah's ability to readapt to the wild. But the phrase also refers to that deep set of bonds to family and to the profound duties of memory and of carrying forward what we have inherited from our parents. Set in South Africa, amid splendid natural settings, and directed by Carroll Ballard, who has given us The Black Stallion and Fly Away Home, Duma is a wonderful film that will entertain, educate, and move the affections of children and adults.
Duma tells the story of Xan (wonderfully played by first time actor Alex Michaletos) and Duma, the cheetah he finds abandoned by the side of the road and takes home to his family farm. Early scenes depict the growing affection between Xan and the adorable young cheetah, who chirps affectionately like a bird. As Duma grows up, he seems on the surface to be completely domesticated. Signs that he is best suited to the wild appear only rarely, such as when he runs. Xan half-mockingly tells his dad, "I bet he's faster than your Porsche." And in a very entertaining scene, he does indeed outrun a racing vehicle.
Although the film focuses on the budding affection between Xan and his unusual house pet, it is never naive about the lives of wild animals. The film also faces squarely the difficulties and duties of human life. When Xan's father dies, there is a moving scene of Xan, bent over, in what appears to be silent prayer. The camera then moves to Duma resting quietly nearby. The scene is wrenching mostly because of the loss of his father, but also because we realize that Xan will sooner or later also suffer a separation from Duma, his constant companion. It looks like it will be sooner. Xan's mother worries that working the farm will be too much for her and her son, so she leases farm and takes Xan to live in the city. Duma comes along too, but on the understanding that officials from an animal preserve will shortly come to find a home for him. In one of the most comical scenes in the film, Duma escapes from the family's apartment, finds his way to Xan's school, and arrives just in time to scare the wits out of a group of bullies who had begun to haze the new kid in school.
At this point, Xan decides to do what his father told him would eventually have to be done: return Duma to the wild, a huge distance from the city. So he sets out in his dad's motorcycle with Duma in the sidecar. They make good progress until they run out of gas. Camping out for the night, they are discovered by Rip (Eamonn Walker of HBO's OZ), a mysterious and possibly ominous character. He tells Xan that he left his village and his family to travel to the big city to make a living, but he found no job and is now on his way home. He makes Xan nervous because he keeps prodding him about how much money they could make selling Duma. But Rip also attempts to instruct Xan in the threats of the uninhabited natural world of South Africa. When Xan boasts that he's not afraid, Rip tells him, "Be smart: Be afraid." As they enter a formerly inhabited but now desolate area, Xan stares at scattered skulls and bones. Rip tells him, "This place is full of people who never thought they'd die here."
So many of our films about nature and friendships between humans and animals tend to downplay the sheer violence of the non-human world. Conversely, some TV shows veer completely in the opposite direction and depict the natural world as one big WWF match — only with better acting. Duma avoids all such caricatures; viewers will marvel at how seamlessly the filmmakers have interjected human actors into a natural world of wild animals. (The most endearing animal in the film is not Duma, but a "bush baby," Rip's traveling companion, a tiny primate with huge eyes and bat-like ears and a screech far out of proportion to its size.)
The cinematography is glorious: The filmmakers used at least 75 different locations, from Johannesburg to the Vaal Riverto the Entabeni Game Reserve to the Northern Cape. But more impressive than the cinematography or the seemingly effortless blending of human into the natural setting is the delicately balanced way the film presents the similarities and differences between animals and humans. Xan and Duma certainly share something of a life together, but as Duma becomes more accustomed to living in the wild, after his first comically feeble attempts at hunting, Xan begins to sense a separation, even a possible threat.
Duma is a film that is at once about separation and continuity. At one point, Xan confesses to Rip that his father recently died. He asks, "How can someone just disappear like that . . . forever." But the memory of his father, like that of Duma, will linger and provide sustenance for the boy as he grows. Indeed, the film suggests that realizing the richness of memory is itself a large part of what is involved in growing up. Successful family films these days aim merely to entertain kids and adults. Duma is a family film in a much more profound way, since it is about the bonds between family members.