Courtesy of AIFF
Not many folks can say they’ve been in Ted VanDerZalm’s shoes, a CPA based in Illinois who is the heart of Matt Johanning’s harrowing documentary: “Amereki Kum: Escape from Dubai.” Told over the course of a brisk 95 minutes, “Kum” recounts the true-life story behind one of the most daring escapes in modern day history.
Johanning, who is Zalm’s nephew, doesn’t waste time setting up the narrative structure and does so like a seasoned veteran. We get hooked immediately, after we find out that Zalm, in order to avoid life imprisonment for crimes he did not commit, comes up with a plan to stash himself inside a small wooden crate and travel eight hours via plane, out of Dubai, to his brother's house in Amsterdam. He faced every obstacle in the book, (pressurization, oxygen levels, water etc) and still lived to tell the tale.
Talk about a story.
The film then cuts back and forth between interviews with family members about the whole ordeal, and truly brings the plot into focus. We find out that Zalm had a terrific business prospect in what was called “The Belize Project” which was destined to become “The next Cancun” - and to this day it is. But what happens next is even more shocking: a shady land developer skips town leaving Zalm exposed and without aid. It won’t take a rocket scientist to tell you, bad things happen.
Zalm’s initial trip was supposed to be a five-week venture - a routine inspection to keep tabs on the project - but it quickly turns into years as Zalm is locked up in a maximum security prison for events out of his control. While back in the states, his family was constantly striving to figure out alternatives to bring him home, but the US Embassy, more or less, left them hanging. It’s like every time they would take three steps forward, they kept getting knocked down all over again.
Moreover, the United States was facing tensions with Iran when, at the time in 1997, we launched a nuclear missile smack dab in the middle of their country. Which made Zalm, the American, a primary target among the inmates. As if he needed to face any more adversity.
To put it another way, he was a tough guy, standing his ground even though he was isolated and alone. So being able to watch him detail his journey is nothing short of extraordinary and the director doesn’t let the story fly away from him either. In some cases - that can happen, but “Amereki Kum” (which is how the security guards in Dubai pronounced “American”) lets the story do all the work. Johanning makes sure that each interview has a purpose and even manages to elicit a few tearjerker moments when archival footage is shown from a mini family reunion. That’s a textbook move that doesn’t feel like a cheat, but a reward.
To be sure, “Kum” does throw more wrenches and twists into the story late in the second act that shouldn’t be spoiled (just know they elevate what’s already a gripping testimony). For now, the film is currently seeking distribution and is making the rounds in other countries and festivals. I can only hope this film reaches the widest audience possible, not only do Zalm and Johanning deserve that, the entire world does too.