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  •  REVIEW: LOST BOYS OF SUDAN

    Lost Boys of Sudan

    Houston, we have a problem

    The documentary "Lost Boys of Sudan" could be less aloof from its subjects — two orphaned youths brought from war-torn Sudan to live in the alien environment of Texas — but it's still a worthwhile look at American life through foreign eyes.

    By PETER THEIS
    Offoffoff.com

    Some documentaries, rather than make a case, capture an organic process. "Lost Boys of Sudan," a film by San Francisco-based filmmakers Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk, is such a documentary, treating the development and adaptation of two Sudanese refugees who hail from a Kenyan refugee camp but find themselves groping for purchase in America's smooth plains.

      
    LOST BOYS OF SUDAN
    Directed by: Megan Mylan, Jon Shenk.
    Featuring: Santino Majok Chuor, Peter Kon Dut.
    Cinematography: Jon Shenk.

    Related links: Official site
     SCHEDULE
    Film Forum 209 West Houston St. (between 6th and 7th Ave.) (212) 727-8100 Feb. 18 — March 2, 2004

    The background of the two teenage boys, Peter and Santino, wrings the heart, and it is clear why humanist filmmakers would take an interest in them. We learn in the opening montage, a narration over children's drawings of the ordeals seen and suffered, that Peter and Santino's villages were razed in lightning raids during the prolonged civil war between the Islamic northern inhabitants and the Christian and animist southern peoples. Both Peter and Santino, along with tens of thousands of other fleeing children (mostly boys), were separated from their parents, who either died in the massacres, died soon afterwards, or disappeared. The children escaped south to Kenya, and having been placed in a U.N. refugee camp, became known as the "lost boys" of Sudan.

    Ten years later, America, in its selective beneficence, agreed to resettle several thousand lost boys within its borders, and the documentary's story is set in motion. Peter and Santino, speaking good but accented English, are selected. Both are Christians, and at the first point where the thorny racial subtext of the film emerges, the refugee camp pastor implores the America-bound to not become like those youths who "wear baggy pants." And then, the inevitable pledges that Peter and Santino make to those left behind: a promise to remit money (in the case of Peter, who has a sister in the camp), a promise not to forget the Dinka tribal values, and finally, and a promise to return to Sudan and use the knowledge gained to help those who could not go to America. An earnest moment that becomes a reference point for the rest of the film, and their journey begins.

    Lost Boys of Sudan  
    After the stock "natives meet the modern world" moments, the film gets down to its real business of charting the effect of the American environment on Peter and Santino and a few dozen other lost boys, who are plopped down in Houston. Santino lands an assembly-line position in a plastics factory, and Peter gets a similar job. Both express disappointment at the lack of educational opportunities, and the lost boys all implore a church charity liaison to provide education, not more furniture. These pleas are in vain; the government has abandoned the lost boys to find their own way. They have little choice but to work the grating, subsistence-level jobs just to afford food and rent.

    During this early period, the film captures the whole group of boys collectively making pointed observations about the new mores thrust upon them. For example, they jokingly note how one can't touch another man or hold his hand, as he will recoil in homosexual panic. This fits snugly in the film's agenda of showing American cultural foibles through the perspective of more communal-minded outsiders. Some observations of the boys are less benign, however; repeatedly, throughout the film, the boys (although Peter and Santino are not guilty of the more egregious examples) voice regressive and sweeping stereotypes about American black men. However, the issue of race, as it plays out in the lost boys' identification of themselves in America's social order and America's reciprocal racialization of them, receives only a desultory, almost indifferent treatment.

      
      The film is so consciously unobtrusive that it aspires to little more than witness. It misses what should be its clear dramatic center: the break between Peter and Santino.
      
    Of much more interest to the filmmakers are the material paths that Peter and Santino travel, and how those paths change their priorities, communal ties, and views of America. The remainder of the film can be either understood as either an indictment of the demoralizing, corrupting effect of prosperity's promise, or understood as a narrative of triumph where a hardworking and talented emigre will find success no matter what the obstacles, thanks to benign government officials and good-hearted, Midwestern religious folk. This is either the strength or weakness of the film depending on what you want from a documentary; it is so consciously unobtrusive that it aspires to little more than witness, permitting the audience to draw its own conclusions according to its own preconceptions.

    Nevertheless, despite its noncommittal style, the film makes subtle comments about the transformative effect of starting anew in America. It closes with Peter and Santino on different tracks, Peter on the path to achievement and success while Santino struggles to escape a Nickel and Dimed purgatory without prospect of advancement. Yet the film complicates both the triumph of Peter and failure of Santino. Peter, soaking up America's individualist ethos, gradually sheds — even betrays — his compatriots, both in Africa and America. His actions thrust him into a TV-flickering isolation where he is still too exotic to find true companions among his American-born peers. Santino, on the other hand, remains true to his communal ethic and the pledges he made when leaving Sudan. In the end, in addition to remitting money to Africa and supporting unemployed and sick lost boys, he works to learn the electrician's craft so that he might help wire Sudan when its terrible conflict subsides.

    Lost Boys of Sudan  
    The downside to the film's delicate subtlety, however, is that it misses what should be its clear dramatic center: the break between Peter and Santino. Peter enacts the quintessentially American dream of abruptly pulling up stakes and hitting the open road (moving to Kansas), and, other than a brief call to Santino, no further interaction occurs between what were tight friends. The filmmakers' stubborn artistic commitment to keeping the illusion of their own non-presence, which manifests itself by an absence of any interview-style questions of its subjects, precludes the film from exploring this in full. But the film suffers; exploring the split between the two friends would have intimately dramatized the costs of Peter's individualistic evolution, and made his evolution less opaque.

      
      Apart from the stories of Peter and Santino, the film has a wealth of Midwesternisms which convey the region's earthy feel, and will make any native of the region smile and cringe.
      
    Apart from the stories of Peter and Santino, the film has a wealth of Midwesternisms which convey the region's earthy feel, and will make any native of the region smile and cringe: gratuitously large houses grouped on lonesome flatland; the religions of Christianity, basketball, and the automobile; Sonic fast food; opulent suburban schools with P.E. teachers of questionable sanity ... and of course, Wal-mart.

    But the soul of the film is in the minds and hearts of the two boys. Although it can make no claim to be a representative depiction of the immigrant experience in America — very few immigrants are beneficiaries of a generous government resettlement program, and arrive speaking good English — "Lost Boys of Sudan" is a documentary that subtlely shows that America is no heaven, and that becoming American can be a Faustian process where the cost of escaping a dead-end destiny may be the loss of an intangible part of the self.

    FEBRUARY 18, 2004
    OFFOFFOFF.COM • THE GUIDE TO ALTERNATIVE NEW YORK


    Reader comments on Lost Boys of Sudan:

  • My goodness!   from dave barrera, Jul 14, 2004
  • Re: My goodness!   from Peter Thiong, Sep 25, 2004
  • Re: My goodness!   from Nyakong Lee, Sep 23, 2007
  • Re: My goodness!   from Lisa, Sep 21, 2005
  • Lost Boys of sudan   from Felicien, Aug 15, 2004
  • lol   from brittany, Sep 22, 2004
  • Re: lol   from Christelle, Nov 24, 2004
  • ok   from gana adouk, Feb 13, 2006
  • hi   from gana adouk, Dec 14, 2004
  • Re: hi   from Rebecca, Sep 23, 2007
  • Santino   from Sheryl Dunn, Feb 17, 2005
  • Peter and Santino   from bob, Apr 11, 2006
  • Re: Peter and Santino   from franŹoise, Sep 12, 2006
  • looking for samebody clled majak Lual Chan   from Asia Lual Chan, Mar 28, 2007
  • well done   from Rebecca, Sep 23, 2007
  • how did you do it   from hakier thomas, Sep 12, 2008
  • [no subject]   from hakier thomas, Sep 12, 2008
  • [no subject]   from , Nov 8, 2008

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