Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish.
Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God,
who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever;
who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free;
the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers…
“Trust no one!” That piece of advice keeps surfacing in the mind of twelve year-old David as he cautiously makes his way on his own from Bulgaria to Denmark. It is 1952 and David has escaped from the brutal Belene Prison Camp in Communist dominated Bulgaria. Based on Anne Holm’s well-received 1963 novel North to Freedom, Director/writer Paul Feig’s I Am David is a wonderful family film exploring several dimensions of freedom—freedom from political oppression and fear, and freedom from mistrust.
The psalmist urges us not to put our trust in the highborn, but the warning to David is all-inclusive. Trust no one! This is part of the survival tactics so necessary in a prison camp, where betrayal might be induced by the reward of a morsel of bread or slightly better treatment. And yet amidst such a jungle environment, altruism still exists—when an angry Commandant, pistol in hand, orders the inmates to line up in a search for the culprit who has stolen a bar of soap, it is David who has the bar, but his older neighbor takes it into his hand, and when discovered, receives the punishment—a bullet to his head. We do not see who is giving David such good advice as to how to escape and where to go (to Denmark), and the tools for the journey as well, including a loaf of stolen bread, a compass and a sealed envelope containing a mysterious document. The dangerous escape over the barbed wire fence of the camp, and then at the border, through an even more formidable fence, will keep you on the edge of your seat. Bargaining his way as a stole-away on a ship bound for Italy, David faithfully follows his orders to “trust no one.”
In Italy his mistrust leads him to flee from a friendly baker who, concerned for the boy’s welfare, calls for a policeman. Farther on, David rescues a girl about his age from a fire and is taken into her home by her grateful parents. He enjoys plenty of food and clean clothes for the first time, but remains silent when the father and mother question him about his past. Soon he is fleeing again, fearful of what might happen to him if he stays, even though he and the girl are attracted to each other. It is not until he encounters Sophie (Joan Plowright), an elderly painter who seems to have also known past tragedy that David begins to soften, though this takes some time. It will be this caring person who discovers the key to David’s dilemma and reveals the reason why he had been instructed to head for Denmark.
Although the advertising for the film features misleads us into thinking that Jim Caviezel is its star, his is but a cameo part, though his Johannes plays a crucial part in keeping David alive in the camp. Child actor Ben Tibber perfectly embodies David, his young face constantly taking on the sober countenance of an old man who has seen too much heartache and brutality. We see several flashbacks of soldiers tearing apart his family, his anguished mother being hauled away in a truck. This is a child who finds it almost impossible to smile, even when he is a long distance from the camp. We rejoice and laugh when he takes his fingers to lift up the corners of his mouth as he practices the unfamiliar gesture. Told with great skill, David’s story will thrill young and old, serving well as a parable of perseverance, pluck, and the restoration of trust.
1) Can you imagine a situation in which you would “trust no one”? How have we had to instill something of this into our small children when we take them out of the house? Can we really live in a world in which no one trusts another? Who is it that the psalmist urges us to trust?
2) How did you feel when David tried to smile? How does this show us that smiling is a learned reflex? What things made David smile? What makes you smile?
3) How can mistrust be replaced by trust? How is Sophia crucial in the awakening of trust in David?
4) Where do you find grace, or self-sacrificing love, in the film?
5) Were you surprised to learn the identity of the person who had engineered David’s escape? The ending involves what some reviewers call “coincidence:” could we say that it was the hand of God leading and caring for the boy?