Lost Boys of Sudan

Last night, I went to see Megan Mylan and John Shenk’s 2003 documentary film, Lost Boys of Sudan (IMDB), a dcoumentary about Sudanese refugees who have moved to the US to escape the growing humanitarian crisis in their home country (thanks to Jason for the link). The film explains that in 2001, when the documentary begins, most of the refugees are Dinka tribespeople who crossed the border into Kenya. The documentary focuses on two of the “lost boys of Sudan” who move to the US, Peter and Santino, and their struggles in the US once they arrive. The film itself is important viewing, especially given the utter lack of attention given to human rights violations in Africa in the US media, but I would have liked a deeper exploration of the humanitarian crisis in Sudan than the film offered.

The film opens with a brief voice-over explanation of the civil war in Sudan, illustrated with paintings and told from the perspective of one of the two “lost boys.” This is the only major use of voice-over in the film, and the filmmakers wisely avoid the god-like omniscient narrator that continues to dominate much documentary fimmaking. However, despite this attempt to situate Santino and Peter as the “storytellers” of the film early on, there were still several moments in which I was conscious of the filmmaker’s gaze (or perhpas, more precisely, the editor’s scissors) when watching certain scenes.

From there, we get a few images from a refugee camp in Kenya and an explanation of the program that brings several hundred young Sudanese men to the US for education and employment. The scene in which the men learn who has been accepted and who hasn’t is pretty powerful, especially given the extent to which they view the US as a ticket to freedom, something the film will eventually and repeatedly undercut. This sequence also highlights the sense of family and community that the boys will be leaving behind and the hopes that are being placed on their shoulders (one tribal elder wrns the boys not to get caught up in the “baggy pants” crowd).

The rest of the film then traces Santino and Peter’s struggles to make their way in the US, especially after many of the promises of opportunity and support fail to materialize. Both Santino and Peter originally settle in Houston, Texas, and both immediately notice that their appearance intimidates many of the locals. Eventually, both take factory work, but Peter begins to seek out opportunities to further his education. After receiving little support from his contacts in Houston, he eventually decides to move to Kansas City, where he enrolls in a public high school, managing to perform well in school almost in spite of a well-meaning, but oblivious, guidance counselor.

Santino’s story conveys many of the problems that immigrants might face. He fails a driver’s test, drives without insurance, and is eventually in a small car accident, and as a result faces several traffic tickets. The documentary doesn’t explicitly offer any blame for Santino’s poor decisions, but the absence of a local support network seems to be partially at fault.

In both stories, I found myself struggling to understand the agency of certain actions/events in the film. Santino, in particular, confronts a fairly bewildering (if not entirely unsympathetic) bureaucratic system, and in those scenes, I rarely noticed anyone with whom Santino could talk about navigating these complexities. Peter, on the other hand, is portrayed as completely independent, eventually choosing to take an apartment on his own. Throughout his life in Kansas City, he is often seen attending a local church and attempting to integrate with the teen group there. These scenes are a little more difficult to read. Peter clearly remains on the outside, but it’s only partially clear why that’s true (he sits passively while others sing worship songs that stand in stark contrast to the emotions in the songs that were perormed in Sudan, for example). In both stories, the film complicates the narrative that immigration to the US will solve all of their problems, something that becomes particualrly clear when Peter calls his sister who cannot understand why Peter isn’t sending more money home.

Overall, it’s a compelling film, and it generally avoids the documentary trap of objectifying Peter and Santino, although I think the film could have been a little more self-conscious of its status as a story. In typical verite style, the filmmakers seem to avoid any kind of artistic signature and do not explicitly acknowledge their role in shaping the story. I think there’s a way of calling attention to one’s status as an author without going to the extremes of a Michael Moore.

To its credit, the film also avoids easy answers. I didn’t walk away from the film thinking that I now understand the Sudanese refugee crisis or even that I understand what it’s like to assimilate from a Sudanese refugee camp into American culture. In that sense, I think the film works very well as a documentary. While avoiding many of the simple truth claims often associated with documentary filmmaking, the film still conveyed a profound sense of injustice about the situation in Sudan.

Update: One other question that the film doesn’t really address: what about the lost women of Sudan? The film focuses primarily on the young men who come to the US to earn money and get an education (an eventually help their families). One of the questions that seemed unanswered and that I left implied earlier: how are the Dinka women dealing with this crisis?

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