Netflix Update No. 13: “I Am David.”

June 27, 2009



We watched the 2003 movie “I Am David,” which is based on “North to Freedom,” a novel for children written by Ann Holm in 1965. The book was first published in Denmark, where it was a best seller.

The story concerns a 12-year-old boy who has spent his life in a Soviet labor camp in Bulgaria. The boy — the David of the title — is played by Ben Tibber. Although it isn’t overly graphic, the film makes the point that these camps were similar in their brutality to the Nazi concentration camps that the public is more familiar with. David, whose parents are inexplicably absent, is heavily influenced in the camp by an adult inmate, Johannes, played by James Caviezel.



From the beginning of the movie, a disembodied voice urges David to escape from the camp, tells him how to accomplish it, directs him to travel to Denmark, and advises him to blend in as well as possible with the people he meets and to trust no one. David’s understanding and application of this last instruction is the battery that drives the story.

The unseen voice tells the boy to pick up a bundle that has been left for him outside the prison fence. This contains a bar of soap – heavily symbolic, as it turns out – a piece of bread, a folding knife, a compass, and a sealed envelope he is to deliver unopened to “the authorities” in Denmark.

The bulk of the movie follows David as he makes his way through Italy and Switzerland, a process that is made easier for him because life in the polygot culture of the labor camp has made him multilingual.



A pivotal figure in David’s journey is an artist, Sophie, whom he stumbles on while wandering northward in Italy. This character is played by the redoubtable Joan Plowright.

This film, directed by Paul Feig and shot in Bulgaria, is visually appealing. A contrast is repeatedly and effectively drawn between the harsh conditions in the labor camp and the bright and colorful outside world that David experiences for the first time but is hesitant to adopt as his own.

The actors are all exemplary, particularly Ben Tibber, who seems to have understood well how a child of that age would be affected by the inhuman treatment he received from his jailers and by the lack of a normal education in social life.

Perhaps because its source was designed for children, this film’s principal weakness is that it repeatedly strains credulity. Happenstance plays too frequent a part in David’s journey for this story to be taken seriously – or, rather, for it to be taken literally. It can be taken seriously as a kind of fable about fear and trust – including the tendency of the state, at times, to fear the people in whom its trust would be well invested.




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