Lost Boys of Sudan
Docurama // Unrated // $26.95 // October 26, 2004
Review by Gil Jawetz | posted November 9, 2004
Highly Recommended
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The decades-old conflict in the Sudan, which was recently branded a genocide by Colin Powell, is one of Africa's longest and bloodiest massacres, leaving millions dead and an entire society on the brink of extinction. But as with all violent struggles, people forget about the plight of the survivors. The so-called "Lost Boys" of Sudan got some international attention because of the incredible story of their journey and thanks to the documentary The Lost Boys of Sudan. Their story is quite heartbreaking - Their villages were pillaged by Arab marauders who murdered the adult men and kidnapped and raped the women and girls. This left many thousands of young boys with no families or homes. So they just started walking. They walked thousands of miles, eventually landing in refugee camps where many of them still live with no real hopes for the future. The film follows a few "lost boys" who get the chance to travel to America and find work, education and a life beyond the refugee camp.

That leads to the film's most impressively abrupt transition: When the subjects leave their dusty camp and land in Houston, Texas, it's like a trip to another world. They're full of dreams and aspirations (they think of America as some sort of fabled paradise) but they also carry the burden of their people: The night before they leave they're told that if they fail in America they fail their people. They're going to a completely unfamiliar place with the pressure of saving their culture.

Once Lost Boys of Sudan hits Texas it mostly becomes the story of two Sudanese men: Santino Majok Chuor and Peter Kon Dut. Both are thoughtful, friendly young men and their individual experiences illustrate a lot about what's great and what wrong with America and what it means to come here from another country. The most striking aspect of their life here is how independent they need to make themselves. The program that brings them to Texas assists them for the first few months, but after that they're responsible for all their own bills, housing, employment, and education. Considering the culture shock of being dropped in such a foreign environment, this system seems insane. Santino finds a job on the nightshift at a plastic factory and quickly gets stuck in the cycle of working a dead-end job just to pay his bills. His roommates leave much of the financial responsibilities up to him and eventually abandon him. He struggles with getting a drivers license and getting a chance to attend school. It's hard watching the disappointment on his face as he realizes that his time in America will be spent punching a clock and not necessarily bettering himself or his nation.

Peter, on the other hand, makes a pretty bold move. He eventually gets sick of Houston and ditches it for Kansas City, where he fudges his age (since their ages are all approximated anyway thanks to the fact that most Sudanese aren't born in hospitals) and enrolls in a public high school. This seems like a brilliant tactic: He can get a free education, get on the track to attending college, and learn the social customs of his new home at a much more involving way. He also dreams of playing basketball (something he enjoyed back in the refugee camp) and riding that activity to a college scholarship. His struggles with balancing a full high school curriculum, a full-time job and basketball tryouts are gripping and heartbreaking. But it's also inspiring to watch him make friends at school, especially considering how openly his classmates seem to accept him.

This interaction is one of the many surprises Lost Boys holds. Peter, like all the "lost boys" featured, dreams of meeting girls (they grew up surrounded almost entirely by boys) and his attempts to do that in high school, while not heavily featured in the film, are beautiful little moments of character development. Similarly, his friendship with some Christian classmates who embrace him and invite him to get-togethers is really interesting. Perhaps one of the most interesting moments, however, comes when the "lost boys" discuss the differences between how men act together in America compared with Sudan. Early in the film Sudanese men are seen holding hands and acting very warmly towards each other. However, when they hit Houston, the "lost boys" get some advice from those who have been around for a while. They're told that in America that's just not a part of normal society and that they shouldn't be seen holding hands in public. Their surprise at this is really touching and the raucous conversation on the subject is funny and real.

This isn't the only potentially eye-opening view the Sudanese express. They talk quite a bit about the differences they feel with American blacks. The program that brings the "lost boys" to American drops them in a pretty rough neighborhood and their experiences with their neighbors are not ideal. They complain of break-ins and robberies and of being intimidated for being different. Sometimes it's just a culture difference (a little trash-talking in a pick-up game with some locals hurts their feelings and gives them a bad impression of Americans) but they clearly do not feel a connection to their neighbors and the intimate, unguarded conversations that the film captures on this subject are among the most surprising. When Santino talks about being made to feel ashamed because his skin is so much darker than the people around him, it's really an openly emotional look at his pain.

That's the thing that really stands out about Lost Boys of Sudan. It's the story of two very specific boys, but it's also the story of their culture and it's also the story of America, seen from a vantage point rarely shown in American film. Looking in on American life from the outside, the way Santino and Peter do, really gives us a look at ourselves. That it's all done with such simple, beautifully effective storytelling and minimal filmmaker meddling (the film is told entirely through the eyes of the subjects) helps make it really memorable and moving.

I was expecting a modest video presentation but Lost Boys of Sudan is actually a surprisingly beautiful film. Presented in anamorphic widescreen video, it features crisp, vibrant imagery and thoughtful, lyrical cinematography. This is really one of the most impressive documentary films shot on video that I've ever seen. I didn't notice any evidence of compression and found the film to be as engaging visually as it is as a story.

The Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack is very good. The interviews are clear and understandable. Whenever the accents get too thick or when the subjects speak in other languages the film includes English subtitles. There are no other optional subtitles included.

There is a very nice selection of extras included on the disc. A commentary track and set of interviews with the filmmakers provide good insight into both the making of the film and the lives of the subjects. Directors Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk are eloquent when discussing the situation in Sudan and their work bringing it to the screen. They really get a chance to go into a lot of detail about their experiences with the film and it adds a lot.

There are two short deleted scenes that show some more interesting moments (including a visit from a couple of pushy Mormons and a frustrating call to the phone company). There are text-based "where are they now" updates for Santino and Peter as well as biographies for the filmmakers. There are a couple of samples of Sudanese music performed by "lost boys." The traditional piece features an earthy guitar and piercing vocal performance while a more modern piece shows jazz and reggae influences. There are also some resources for finding out more about the plight of these refugees and for helping to bring them to America.

Lost Boys of Sudan is at times heartbreakingly sad and exhilaratingly inspirational. As a portrait of Peter and Santino it's intimate and personal. As a study of the plight of a nation it's powerful. And as a look back at our own society it's surprising and educational. And not only does the film work on all these levels, but it's also beautifully constructed and produced. It's required viewing for anyone with any interest at all in this subject matter. Lost Boys of Sudan is one of the finest documentaries on any subject that I've seen in some time.

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