Judge Lacey Worrell expected either vampires or Peter Pan, but what she got was a powerful and moving documentary that casts a whole new light on life in contemporary America.
"Safe at last from physical danger and hunger, a world away from home, [Peter] and [Santino] find themselves confronted with the abundance and alienation of contemporary American suburbia."
This unflinching look at the immigrant experience in America is given a unique twist as it follows two young men who survived genocide in their native land, where young boys are forced to form surrogate families in order to survive refugee camps and then, if they are chosen for it, life in America—which, as this documentary unflinchingly points out, is not always the fairy tale it is made out to be.
Facts of the Case
Peter Kon Dut and Santino Majok Chuor lost their parents in the bloody, catastrophic civil war that occurred in the Sudan in the mid-1990s. After barely escaping with their lives and spending years in a refugee camp, each is granted asylum by the United States and is relocated to low-income housing in Houston, Texas. Once in the land of opportunity, both find that while there is great pride to be found in making enough money to pay rent, afford automobiles, and send money back home, the jobs they work at are menial and the opportunity for education is not what they thought it would be. In a successful bid to earn an education, Peter even relocates to Olathe, Kansas, where smack in the middle of the Bible Belt he finds well-meaning new friends who, while sympathetic to his plight, have no possible way to understand the many lives he has lived in less than two decades on earth. Lost Boys of Sudan follows the two young men as they determinedly make their way in a foreign land with only their fellow refugees for emotional support.
What makes this documentary so moving and effective is its avoidance of the usual voiceovers; instead, Peter and Santino tell their story, which is often subtitled to compensate for their accents. If this had been a Hollywood retelling of their story, all the usual clichés would be present: mean-spirited, prejudiced classmates who end up clapping spontaneously as the boys beat all the odds, villainous teachers who attempt to block the boys' attempts at an education. Because this is real life, however, it contains the giddy highs and excruciating lows one might expect. Peter and Santino, by the very nature of their circumstances, have suffered far more than most, but past suffering is no buffer or guarantee against present and future difficulties. They handle these with good-natured, if at times confused, grace, and their sheer determination to beat the odds is far more inspiring than anything a screenwriter could put down on paper.
The protagonists' expectations of the fairy-tale America are akin to those of a bride who prepared for marriage by reading wedding magazines; on paper it sounds romantic and wonderful, but the reality, while not always a negative experience, is far different. They are the pioneers; no one has come before them to show them the ropes. In many instances, they must find their own way.
The culture shock is at times overwhelming; the Lost Boys must be taught how to use an electric stove, having never seen one before. Imagine it. Something most or all of us grew up with, as much a part of the architecture of our homes as the roof or the kitchen floor, is as foreign to these young men as cooking over an open flame three times a day would be for those who come from Western society.
Viewing the United States—especially what is considered rural, wholesome America—through the eyes of outsiders who remain on the outside for the duration of the documentary is an unsettling but highly enlightening experience. At times, Peter's and Santino's attempts to fit in while at the same time honoring their own culture are heartbreaking. They feel isolated not only from whites but from American blacks as well. Their skin is darker, their accents are different, their customs are foreign. Peter must balance the difficulty of living a solitary life in Kansas while working, going to school, and managing requests for money from his sister back home who has no way of understanding how challenging life in America is for him. Most of the time he does this without complaint, just with a grim acceptance that this is a means to an end. Peter's and Santino's frustration stems from the fact that receiving their education is not necessarily a given, and they must fight to get it. The fact that they do fight, and refuse to just settle for the menial jobs they work, gives this documentary heart and spirit.
Be sure to catch the 15-minute interview with the filmmakers, who offer a great deal of perspective on the filming process in addition to behind-the-scenes details on how Peter and Santino were selected, as well as the emotional difficulty of filming the young men's tribulations. It would have been nice to know more about Peter's and Santino's lives before they came to the United States, but a 90-minute documentary can only cover so much territory. The where-are-they-now updates are helpful, however. It should also be noted that children as young as 11 or 12 years old will be able to appreciate the content of this documentary, and viewing it as a family may spark some interesting discussions.
After experiencing this documentary, you may well want to ask yourself if, after losing everything and everyone in the world, you would be able to move to a foreign land, assimilate to the language and customs, and create a successful life.
Lost Boys of Sudan is one of those rare films you will think about long after its conclusion; make it the next film you see. And tell some friends about it while you're at it.
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