for National Geographic News
On September 11, 2001, Paul Feig was to start writing the screenplay for I Am David a harrowing tale of a 12-year-old boy who flees a post-World War II labor camp in Bulgaria and travels across Europe as a refugee.
Then, terrorists struck New York and Washington, D.C.
For days, Feig walked around in a daze, unable to write. But as he learned of extraordinary acts of heroism and kindness, his feelings of fear and mistrust gave way to optimism and hope. That's when the theme of his movie crystallized.
"The film is about how you get back your faith in people," Feig, who also directed I Am David, said recently over a piece of pie at a café in Burbank, California. "It's about overcoming the fear and mistrust, and becoming more hopeful about human nature."
It's a theme that has resonated with audiences. I Am David has been a success on the festival circuit. The film opens in theaters across North America on October 8.
Today there are about 40 million refugees worldwide, a number that is rising. Hoping to highlight the crisis, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees agency (UNHCR) has hosted screenings of I Am David and produced teaching materials to accompany the film.
"We are using the poignancy and the beauty of the film to highlight other refugee stories," said Joung-Ah Ghedini, a UNHCR spokesperson in Washington, D.C. "We have so many children today who have stories like David's, who make perilous journeys on their own and survive the unthinkable."
In the movie, David flees the prison camp in Bulgaria with only a compass, half a loaf of bread, and a sealed letter he must carry across Europe to Denmark. The film is based on a novel by Anne Holm.
Feig said he wanted to make a movie about a person who sees the world for the first time. "David has to learn not only how to get by on his own in alien surroundings, but also how to trust people and believe in their goodness," Feig said.
The challenge, he said, was to get people to relate to David's dangers. "Few of us have ever been exposed to true injustice and persecution. It's hard to comprehend that some people must risk everything for what others take for granted."
Labor camps meant to reform political prisoners are most commonly associated with Josef Stalin's Soviet Union. But more than 400 camps based on the same model also existed across eastern and central Europe.
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