In the African nation of Sudan, a civil war raged for 20 years. When the dust settled, some 20,000 kids were left orphaned. These tribal boys, called “lost boys,” ended up in refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia. In recent years, with help from the United Nations and the U.S. State Department, many were bought to America.
This documentary, directed by Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk, focuses on two of the refugees, Peter and Santino. After surviving the violence in Sudan of an Islamic fundamentalist government battling Christian and Animist tribes, Peter and Santino have been told that America is heaven on earth, a land of plenty where one’s needs are taken care of as long as one is willing to work. The reality proves more complicated.
The Americans they encounter are decent sorts even when they’re being ineffectual, like the YMCA worker who listens to grievances but can’t do anything about them. When a coach cuts Peter from the basketball team, the man gives the teen such magnanimous praise that you’d think he was handing him an award.
Working to survive, Santino in Houston and Peter in Kansas sink into a mood of diminished expectations and depressing loneliness. For these young men, America seems like a land of traps, not so much hostile as indifferent beneath its cordial surface.
Part of the fascination of this story lies in the stranger-in-a-strange-land view of things Americans take for granted, like well-stocked grocery stores and handy fast food and the attendant right some feel they have to eat themselves to death, as well as various social customs (one of the young men wonders why people always ask him how he’s doing, but don’t wait for an answer) and taboos (word spreads quickly among the refugees that it’s not a good idea for two males to walk arm in arm).
The other compelling thing here is the personalities of the film’s two subjects, with their blend of provincial naïveté and a well-earned weariness that seems close to wisdom. The lost boys’ survival instincts are well-honed and one hopes that their American experience, with its bewildering combination of enticements and disappointments, will leave them unscathed. One also hopes that there’s a follow-up film, one where the pervading mood of sadness has lifted a little.
In English and Dinka, Arabic and Swahili with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit) Monday, July 26, at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].