Review: ‘Lost Boys of Sudan’

"Lost Boys of Sudan" is a potent, engrossing look at several young refugees from Sudan's disastrous, endless civil war who've been relocated to the U.S. Their early experiences here provide a fascinating outsider's take on American culture and values. Sharply assembled docu is a sure bet for further fest travel, with tube sales and educational exposure to follow.

“Lost Boys of Sudan” is a potent, engrossing look at several young refugees from Sudan’s disastrous, endless civil war who’ve been relocated to the U.S. Their early experiences here provide a fascinating outsider’s take on American culture and values. Sharply assembled docu is a sure bet for further fest travel, with tube sales and educational exposure to follow.

Dinka tribes of the south have been particularly hard-hit in Sudanese warfare that so far has left an estimated 2 million dead, 4 million displaced. Pic’s protags are among some 20,000 cattle-tending “lost boys” who escaped village massacres while their fathers were killed, their mothers and sisters mostly taken as slaves. Those who survived the trek’s dangers (including frequent lion attacks) ended up in Ethiopian and Kenyan refugee camps.

Helmers Megan Mylan and John Shenk follow seven of these late-teens who are finally cleared for U.S. emigration, sponsored by various church and social service organizations.

Landing in Houston, they’re given basic living expenses for a few months and put up in a single apartment. Coming from mud huts, simply being on the building’s second floor is confounding to them, let alone the experience of always having plenty to eat. But beyond improving their English and hoping to gain access to higher education, there’s pressure to be self-supporting, which usually means dead-end assembly line work for minimum pay. Living in a crime-plagued neighborhood, they’re nonplussed by a culture where drive-by shootings are common and male friends are automatically derided as homosexual.

Principal focus is on Santino, who elects to stay in Houston (and gets into trouble driving without a license), and Peter, who finds a more congenial environment once he moves on to Kansas. There, he’s able to enroll in high school, making the National Honor Roll while supporting himself with a night job. Despite that exhausting schedule, a sister back in Africa still berates him on the phone for not doing enough for those left behind. Sobered if not fully disillusioned by his new life, he sighs, “Now it’s clear, there is no heaven on earth.”

Complicated outsider’s perspective on the land of opportunity is fascinating, with the community-minded Sudanese exhibiting practical values considerably loftier than those around them. Notion that anyone can get ahead by dint of hard work proves wobbly — industrious and eager-to-learn as they are, the lost boys nonetheless soon discover cold cash ultimately determines most life paths.

Related worries are at least briefly forgotten as pic ends with a joyous East Coast retreat for all the U.S.-resettled “lost boys,” one year after their arrival. Docu packs a lot into its running time, editing no doubt large body of verite footage into a fast-paced, detail-savvy narrative package. Tech aspects are very good.

Lost Boys of Sudan

Production

An Actual Films and Principe Productions presentation. Produced by John Shenk, Megan Mylan. Executive producer, Frances Reid. Directed by John Shenk, Megan Mylan.

Crew

Camera (color, HD vid), Shenk; editors, Kim Roberts, Mark Becker. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 25, 2003. Running time: 90 MIN. (English, Dinka, Arabic and Swahili, with English subtitles.)
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