As a cub, Duma (the Swahili word for "cheetah") is taken in by young Xan (Alexander Michaletos) after the child and his dad (Campbell Scott) find the cat by a roadway at night. Duma grows up on the family farm until the boy's father becomes ill. Relocated to the big city, Xan determines to follow his father's wish and return the cheetah to his home wilderness.
Xan and his family are white (no actress on Earth is whiter than Hope Davis, who plays Xan's mother). Twenty minutes go by before we see any black South Africans. Later on, a tribesman named Ripkuna (Eamonn Walker) provides help for Xan on his harsh journey. Rip's an ambiguous figure, both for his blunt-spoken ways ("For us to live, we must eat them," he says of the cheetah and his own pet, a bush baby) and for his motives, which Xan suspects. As it happens, Rip's motives are indefinite (he's been wounded by life in the city, and is on his own quest for regeneration), and he emerges as a rounded human being. Duma can perhaps be taxed for colonialist attitudes -- inevitable in any film confronting a poor black man and a white boy full of his privileges -- but at least it spares us Rip as a magical African father figure.
Ballard's most successful pictures straddle the line between civilization and nature, making a point of bringing a spirited child into close contact with animals, from wild horses (The Black Stallion) to wild geese (Fly Away Home). The splendid Never Cry Wolf varied this technique by having its heroic naif take the unlikely form of the grown-up Charles Martin Smith.
As these films are by and large targeted for family audiences, Ballard tends to look past the unpleasant fierceness of real nature, red in tooth and claw, yet he never lies to his viewers. For example, Duma's meals take place off-camera, but we do see the cheetah setting his table, as it were: chasing prey.
This fundamental honesty in Ballard's approach may explain his sadly short filmography: a mere seven films since 1979, a couple of them only barely released. (Warner Bros. evidently planned to shop this charming and pleasant movie, which is based on a true story, straight to video.) Duma's theatrical release should provide a nice break for families tired of the computer-generated fantasies so common today. When Ballard gets Xan and Duma in the same frame, for instance, we see the boy and the animal interact, even cuddle. He does use editing (a shot of the kid, a shot of crocodiles) to create a fight for survival, but those crocs are real, not digital. So are all the other animals we glimpse as Xan and Duma travel across the African landscape.
That refusal to cheat doesn't keep Ballard from coating his images in honeyed lighting, or having Duma do cute animal things like walk across piano keys as a cub or take a nap with a chicken, or strike anthropomorphic poses -- on a bed, sprawled across a lounge chair. Even so, he takes the boy's voyage seriously.
So Xan wants to return Duma to his home. "Wildness is in his bloodline like a memory," says Xan's father. His mother raises a more pertinent question: "Do you even know what 'wild' means?" It takes a good long while for Duma to begin to prove that he can survive in his natural habitat. The boy's survival is no less miraculous, full of clever invention that should please children, like the sand boat Xan contrives to sail across a desert.
This last touch reminded me of the sand boat the American inventor Johnny Do-It contrives to sail across the Deadly Desert in one of L. Frank Baum's Oz books. Ballard shares with Baum, a secular fantasy writer, a utilitarian attitude toward nature; he apparently believes that nature is user-friendly if we only respect it. By contrast, what's now dominant in theaters is Christian fantasy: It's all about the subjection of nature to man (under God), as when the humans and talking beavers alike bow to Aslan in the film of C.S. Lewis' Narnia. Ballard's depiction of humanity's role in nature -- and spirituality -- is more inclusive. He loves nature, if only for how beautiful it looks when he photographs it. He's Ansel Adams with color and movement; he's Terrence Malick without all the mumbling.
Duma, then, is more than a simple boy-and-his-cheetah tale. It presents a different way of living in the world than is encouraged by our modern, videogame movies, with their digital animals and gods, as substantial as a computer program. Through cinematography that reveals only what's actually in front of the camera, it bears witness to both a vanishing nature (there are but 600 cheetahs left in all of South Africa) and a vanishing reality-based cinema.