The Lost Boys of Sudan

Provost's Film Series

March 25, 2005



Lost Generation

The "lost boys" of this documentary belong to a "lost generation" of Sudanese youth, victims of decades of violence and famine.  Since 1983, approximately two million Sudanese people have been killed and some four million others displaced.  Often parentless and uneducated, the exiles have settled into refugee camps in Ethiopia, Uganda, Egypt and Kenya.  Unemployed and unable to grow food, these expatriates have been overwhelmed by malnutrition, disease and despair.  Lost Boys of the Sudan focuses on two of the so-called "lucky" ones—the rather small percentage of Sudanese refugees given the chance to begin life anew in the "Heaven" of the United States.

Civil war in Sudan has raged since the nation secured its independence from the United Kingdom in 1956.  Except for a ten-year era of peace from 1972 to 1982, the military regimes of Sudan's Islamic northern regions have warred against the southern region, home to mostly Christian and animist peoples.  Britain had essentially ruled Sudan as two distinct provinces, focusing its economic development in the north.  After independence, the failure of northern leaders to establish a federalist constitution inspired a separatist movement in the south.  So did the imposition of harsh Islamic rules, including amputations and stoning.  Famine and economic depression intensified the ethnic and religious conflicts.  In January 2005, Sudan's vice president and the leader of a coalition of Sudanese rebels signed a peace accord in Nairobi, Kenya.  That accord also revived hopes for a solution to a separate conflict in Darfur, Sudan's western area.  In Darfur—which literally means the "home of the Fur" tribe—thousands of black Fur villagers and other sympathetic peoples have been rebelling since 2003 against the national government and the Janjaweed, an Arab tribal militia widely condemned for its intimidation, rape and murder.

Reality Filmmaking

Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk, two young filmmakers from the San Francisco Bay area,  were drawn to the story of the lost boys when many "high priority" refugees began to be resettled near their homes.  Mylan, a Berkeley graduate, had already won awards for a documentary about Afro-Brazilian percussionists fighting drug violence in Rio de Janeiro.  Shenk, a Stanford alum, had made films for the BBC, MTV, and PBS, and had helped produce the supplementary materials on the DVD release of The Phantom Menace in the Star Wars series.  To make Lost Boys, they teamed with executive producer Frances Reid, with whom Mylan had previously worked on the documentary Long Night's Journey into Day, a stunning glimpse into South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (scheduled for Provost's Film Series on April 8).

In the early months of 2000, nearly 4,000 Sudanese young men began to be resettled in America, and Mylan and Shenk met a contingent in San Francisco.  "They charmed us with their warmth and intelligence," the directors observe, "and within months we were on a plane to Kukuma, Kenya, a U.N. refugee camp located fifty miles south of the Kenya-Sudan border, looking for people with whom we could spend the next year."  They found willing partners in Santino Majok Chuor and Peter Nyarol Dut, two young men from the Dinka tribe, and the filmmakers agreed to chronicle their assimilation into American life. They record their farewell in Kenya, their journeys into Houston and Kansas, and the bewilderment, joy and discouragement that define their struggle to find a place in a new land. "We felt the best way to portray the complexity of the story," Mylan and Shenk claim, "was to film it in an observational style.  In the age of 'reality' television that is anything but real, we have attempted to make a film in the vein of the original reality filmmaking of the 1960s—cinema verité. . . . We strove to capture the natural flow of their days with as little intrusion as possible.  In the editing, we worked to let their story tell itself with minimal interference, using long, unnarrarated takes."  This journey brings hope, but also a sense of dislocation.  "They made the choice to come here," Shenk observes, "or it was made for them by their people.  Once they land here there is no going back . . . Even if they do go back to Sudan or Kenya, psychologically there is no going back.  They've now seen this whole other life and it has had a huge impact on the way they think and how they see themselves."


Individualism and Immigration

Perhaps the most disorienting aspect of their new life in "Heaven" is the emphasis on individualism.  In America the story of immigration is told as a tribute to personal hard work and perseverance, a willingness to overcome obstacles and seize opportunities.  At orientation classes for the resettled Africans, teachers strive to prepare the refugees for American individualism, though nothing truly prepares them for the fear that comes when they feel all alone.  By contrast, in Africa, especially in the crammed huts of the Kenyan refugee camps, the young men were accustomed to communal living, with large groups of people banding together to sing, dance, and support one another.  The resettlement in America did not sever the Africans' ties to their friends and families across the ocean.  As the documentary reveals, Santino and Peter do their best to adjust to the individualistic ethos of America; they endeavor to succeed at school, overcome the challenges of money orders, learn to pay their rent, and survive the Department of Motor Vehicles.  But they also recall the malnutrition and sickness of the refugee camps, and they are expected to ship much of their money back home.  That sense of living in two worlds—with moral obligations to the old world but without the safety net of family and friends in their new culture—creates anxieties and burdens that few of us can understand. 

"Too often in America," Mylan and Shenk admit, "we don't take the time to welcome newcomers or even to embrace our neighbors in what can be an alienating culture."  Even the well-meaning are not always sure of how to embrace the immigrants.  In the film, an evangelical group reaches out to one "lost boy," but their spiritual idioms and praise music seem as likely to create walls as to build bridges.  Peter, obviously a skillful athlete, struggles to find his way in the American brand of basketball, and the coach never quite breaks through the cultural barriers.  But the film, despite its unsentimental gaze at their struggles, does not overstate their trials, and there is reason to believe that the resettlement will in the long run succeed.  Only about one percent of the world's 15,000,000 refugees choose immigration, and the U.S. resettles more than all other nations combined.  Eighty thousand refugees remain in the Kakuma camp, more than three-fourths of them Sudanese. The Kenyan government keeps the refugees isolated, opposing their integration into Kenyan society.  What Peter and Santino experience in America, with all of its discomforts and disappointments, seems tame when compared to their bleak life in Kenyan exile.  As Mylan and Shenk show us the painful process of resettlement and the loss of one's family and culture, it can be overpowering to consider that this resettlement process does not even begin to address the deepest issues behind the increase in refugees—the spread of war, poverty and famine.