Lost Boys of Sudan

Robin Clifford
Robin Clifford 
Lost Boys of Sudan
Laura Clifford
Laura Clifford 
For 20 years civil war has gripped Sudan. The Islamic fundamentalist government has been waging war on the southern separatists comprised of Christians and Animists with some two million killed and four million displaced. 20000 Sudanese boys, mostly cattle herders, escaped the carnage that destroyed their villages, murdered the men and enslaved women and children. 4000 of the teens were granted refugee status in the US and documentary filmmakers Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk follow the lives of two of the “Lost Boys of Sudan.”

Peter Nyarol Dut and Santino Majok Chour, like the rest of the lost boys, were forced to flee the slaughter, cross hundreds of miles of desert, face enemy fire, lion attacks and hunger. They eventually find safe haven in UN refugee camps, first in Ethiopia and then in Kenya. With peace in Sudan doubtful for the foreseeable future and with no family for support, 4000 of the boys were given high priority refugee status and were whisked off to such far flung American locales as Houston, Kansas City, San Jose and Little Rock. Peter and Santino are with the group sent to Houston.

Mylan and Shenk show a true clash of cultures as the young Sudanese are pulled out of their simple world and plunked down into the high tech madness of 21st century US of A. Peter and Santino, at first, seem very much the same. They have a common language, similar backgrounds and are in the same circumstance. The filmmakers follow the two boys as they enter the American system and become strangers in a strange land. When their plane lands in Houston, one of the boys remarks that there are no cars in America as they taxi to the terminal – pavement, to the boys, means roads and roads mean cars.

The small band of lost boys assigned to Houston is met at the airport by a contingent from the YMCA. That organization will provide room, board and spending money for four months to each of the young men while they get on their feet, find jobs and get an education. They are given the rundown of the form and function of a modern American kitchen, from electric stove to garbage disposal. They are educated in the American mores of cleanliness, deodorant and the merit of frequent bathes if they want to get along with their fellow workers and neighbors. How the film’s subjects cope with this massive change of cultures is the meat of ”Lost Boys of Sudan.”

Peter, as you get to know the two central figures, soon comes across as a young man who is ready and willing to adapt to his surroundings. He sees that Houston is not the place for him, does research and selects Kansas City as his best opportunity. He leaves his friend, Santino, sets himself up in KC, enrolls in high school and strives, vigorously, to better himself and his lot in life. Peter is a true individual, the type that you know can survive anywhere.

Santino, as we get to know him, is the most deeply affected by the changes in life thrust upon the lost boys. He works at a $7.00 per hour job, barely makes ends meet. When he is stopped by the police for driving without a license, no registration and speeding, with fines totaling in excess of $500, even surviving is an issue for the hapless Sudanese. He resents his friend Peter’s success but also admires his friend. In the end, “Lost Boys of Sudan” is both hopeful and cynical about America’s good intentions.

“Lost Boys of Sudan” is a true strangers-in-a-strange-land story that is a personal venture into how two young men, of similar background, cope, or not, with their new lives. I give it a B.

Producer/directors Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk (also acting as cinematographer) travelled to the Kenyan refuge camp that held some of the 20,000 boys who crossed hundreds of miles of desert escaping the civil war which orphaned them, dubbing them the "Lost Boys of Sudan."

Twenty years of fighting between a Northern Islamic fundamentalist government and Southern Sudanese Christian separatists has killed two million people.  Forced famine, slavery and attacks have hit the cattle-herding Dinka tribe particularly hard.  "Lost Boys of Sudan" begins very much like "James' Journey to Jerusalem" with water colored images accompanied narration, but this is no fable - instead we hear how 'they took young girls and used them up' and how families were dashed apart and even of lion attacks!

4,000 of these Lost Boys, who have been featured in a Vanity Fair article as well as a terrific Boston Globe series, have been given a fresh start in several U.S. cities.  Mylan and Shenk follow two of them.  Peter Nyaral Dut preps himself with books on basketball while Santino Majok Chuor speaks of how much he will miss what he is leaving behind.  Already we are given a hint that one of these boys will adapt quickly and which will struggle.

Local YMCAs and Church Groups aid in the transition.  The boys are given four months rent-free and an allowance, but must quickly become self-reliant in a world where things as simple as electric ranges, garbage disposals and deodorant are completely new concepts.

"Lost Boys of Sudan" is like a more intimate and tragic version of "Balseros," last year's Academy Award nominated doc that traces the fates of Cuban boat people adjusting to American Society.  "Lost Boys," however, focuses on the human ability to adapt (or not), giving only a brief history on the Sudanese Civil War.  The film may have better served its subject by stirring up a stronger sense of outrage at the outset.  Still, Mylan and Shenk succeed in establishing the love and loyalty among this group of young men who become strangers in a very strange land.

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