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Middlebury College to show Hollywood film about a boy and his cheetah, capturing the African childhood of senior Alexander Hopcraft, Feb. 16

February 3, 2006

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - Growing up on his family's 20,000-acre game ranch in Kenya, Middlebury College senior Alexander Hopcraft, known as Xan, shared his days with a plethora of zebra, giraffe, impala and eland, among other native wildlife. But it is the lifelong bond he formed with one animal in particular - a cheetah - that has become the focus of the recently released Hollywood movie "Duma." Middlebury College will offer a free screening of the film at 7 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 16, in Dana Auditorium in Sunderland Language Center on College Street (Rte. 125).
"Dooms was already a few years old by the time I was born," said Hopcraft, recalling the family's pet cheetah that he came to love and later write about in his book, "How It Was With Dooms: A True Story from Africa," from which the movie is adapted. Duma, named for the Swahili word for cheetah, was abandoned in the African bush as a small cub and adopted into the Hopcraft family when he was no bigger than a kitten. He grew to be a regular member of the family and a longtime companion to young Xan. "I was never scared of Dooms," said Hopcraft, "though there were times when he looked at me and seemed to be considering what a tasty little morsel I would make." 

Last summer Xan Hopcraft posed with Shalla, one his family's more recent  pet cheetahs. 

The Hopcrafts lived a fairly isolated daily life - their ranch is a 45-minute drive from Nairobi and didn't have electricity until the 1990s - and Hopcraft was home-schooled until the seventh grade, so his familiarity with the more urban and social lifestyles of his peers was minimal. He became used to finding his own amusements alongside Dooms. "Dooms was an incredibly affectionate being," he said. "He was like the kind of friend who just sits and listens to you, all-knowing and sympathetic. He would purr intensely while being groomed or scratched behind the ears or under the chin."

Eventually Hopcraft attended the International School of Kenya (ISK) in Nairobi, but the transition was a difficult one. "I spent a lot of time alone in the library," he said. Even today, as a busy and active student at Middlebury College, he often finds his thoughts "drifting back to the ranch in Kenya where the hustle and bustle of everyday life just fades away."  The game ranch  has been in the family for three generations, and Hopcraft hopes to return home after graduate school to work with the Kenyan wildlife service to carry on the family tradition as stewards of the land.

Unfortunately, though, that home no longer includes a waiting companion in Dooms. The cheetah died when Hopcraft was 12, and it was that first real experience with death that inspired him to write a book about Dooms with his mother. "When Dooms died, it was a traumatic time for the entire family, and the book was written at first as a journal to help me express my grief over losing him," he said.

Once "How It Was With Dooms" was published by Simon and Schuster in 1997, however, the story that was written for an audience of one family became hot news on the Hollywood front. The Hopcrafts received several offers for the film rights, and eventually chose to work with Warner Bros. For financial reasons, it was filmed in South Africa instead of Kenya, and the storyline includes a more dramatic twist of fate that leads a young Hopcraft and his cheetah on a perilous journey into the Kalahari Desert. But while the film may differ in some ways from Hopcraft's story, the essence of a deeply felt friendship between a boy and his remarkable pet is maintained. 
The movie is directed by Carroll Ballard, Hollywood's well-versed interpreter of the intricately beautiful relationships between humans and animals whose credits include "The Black Stallion," "Never Cry Wolf" and "Fly Away Home." From the beginning, Hopcraft appreciated that the producers were interested in his and his parents' input for much of the tale. "My parents met with Ballard and went down to South Africa to watch some of the production and meet with the actors," he said. When he was finally able to see the completed film, he admits to being somewhat skeptical because so many of the original elements of the story had been changed. "I was pleasantly surprised, though," he said. "The cinematography is beautiful, and the essential theme is there - that there's more to life than just mankind, and that the friendship and bonding between a boy and an animal can be filled with incredible and lasting lessons."

According to The New York Times, "Mr. Ballard has taken up the mystery of human existence through a story that plumbs the depths of that original kingdom we have long tried to abandon, the animal world." Also, in a recent review, Roger Ebert called the film "ambitious and visionary" and was "absorbed by its storytelling, touched by its beauty.[and] fascinated by the bond between the boy and the animal." The film opened for audiences in New York and Los Angeles on Sept. 30, 2005, and was released in other select cities throughout the fall. 

When asked what he learned most from his friendship with Dooms, as well as the many other animals and wildlife that were part of his childhood, Hopcraft said, "I learned about
tolerance, flexibility, exploring all opportunities, not regretting what doesn't work, keeping calm, and unfaltering loyalty." Not bad for a young man about to head out into the world after graduating from college this June.

For more information, contact the Middlebury College Center for Campus Activities and Leadership at 802-443-3100.