Shot on video and in a widescreen format, Lost Boys of Sudan follows two African immigrants to the United States. The documentary is interesting on many levels, not the least of which is an outsider’s view of our own country.
Coming To America
The movie opens with some important political background. Islamist extremists in the north of Sudan have been killing the Christian and Animist people of the south. Nine years ago, 20,000 boys escaped to Kenya, their parents dead or missing. From the refugee camp, they have been emigrating in small groups to the U.S. and elsewhere. Peter and Santino left Kenya in August 2001 on their way to “Hawston in Texas.”
The movie tells their stories roughly chronologically. Their first experiences in this country are eye-opening. We see that they have just come from mud huts, and now they’re living in clean, angular apartments that are somehow futuristic, even though in another movie they might look shabby and soulless. What we take for granted, they have to be taught, from electric stoves and garbage disposals to shopping for bargains and wearing deodorant.
The strangeness of America is almost as palpable as their shyness and loneliness. After a couple of months, they have landed jobs and earned a little money, but they still feel like outsiders. It’s not until several months later that they feel confident enough to start asking for what they came here for in the first place: an education.
Peter moves to Kansas City, which Santino sees as something of a betrayal. But it proves to be a smart choice, at least in part. In KC, Peter is able to register for classes at his local high school. He tries out for the basketball team, works at Wal-Mart (for an apparently racist manager), and tries to make friends with a girl from his class.
What Peter loses by going to Kansas City is the sense of community that Santino enjoys in Houston. The best moment of the film illustrates this difference in a way only film (in this case, video) can convey. It comes when Peter and Santino attend celebrations that are unbelievably different for how similar they are. Lost Boys of Sudan crosscuts between them In Texas, many of the Lost Boys show up for an independence day celebration with the rest of the Sudanese community. They bring homecooked food and fattening desserts on their mismatched dishes. Their host speaks confidently and eloquently in their native tongue, and the grateful crowd spontaneously breaks out into songs of joyful rebellion and proud defiance.
Meanwhile, Peter is the only black person in a roomful of suburban white teenagers. They eat mass-manufactured pizza and listen to their teenaged host attempt to put everyone at ease by telling them to go around the room and say “who you are, what’s your favorite color, or something gay, (oops) ‘cool,’ like that.” They sing too, but their songs are submissive hymns, sung in a frankly creepy version of peer-pressure Christianity. Peter sits in the back of the room by himself, depressed and sullen among the rich suburban Americans.
Heaven on Earth?
There isn’t a natural ending to Lost Boys of Sudan, although it finds an emotionally satisfying finish at a one-year reunion in Washington, D.C. Here, Peter and Santino and the other Lost Boys in America gather and relax. They come from Texas, Kansas City, Utah, Idaho, and all across the U.S. But since they’re all together they are happy. This week, at least, they don’t have to work so hard at becoming Americans.
Thankfully, someone asks the question that was on my mind since the beginning of the movie when they arrived in Texas. Is it any better here than it was in Kenya? They carefully duck the question, saying only that they’ve learned, in spite of their streets-paved-with-gold expectations, that there is no Heaven on Earth.