Arthur Howes’ latest docu on the peoples of Sudan concerns brothers Benjamin and William, two of the 20,000 “lost boys” who journeyed from war-ravaged Sudan to Ethiopia only to be expelled four years later and forced into a perilous trek by foot to refugee camps in Kenya. A decade later, the brothers enroll in an American expatriation program with the ominously Orwellian moniker “The Process,” which sends young men to the U.S., ostensibly to get an education. William is chosen to go, while Benjamin remains behind. PBS or cable airing of docu is a distinct possibility.
Extremely upset at being separated, the brothers solemnly part: William vows not to “go native” in America, but to bring back the “gold” of education to their people, while Benjamin assures William he will follow him like Christ followed John the Baptist. An amazing extended pan shows the “lost boys” left behind a barbed wire fence, their faces reflecting every conceivable mix of emotion. The leave-takings are noisy, strange and — in the case of Benjamin, who is beaten by security guards in his attempt to say goodbye to his brother — violent.
William travels to Houston, where director Howes rejoins him in an apartment William will share with several other Sudanese youths. It soon becomes apparent that, in Texas at least, “The Process” serves as a conduit to minimum wage jobs. William wants to study medicine, but officials inform him he must be willing to do “anything” to survive. William and his friends feel duped, and many speak of going back to Kenya. William gets a job as a stacker in a chain drugstore.
Then, William finds out a woman claiming to be his grandmother, whom he has never met, has been calling from Kansas City. William and friends pile into a borrowed car and take off for Kansas. William finds his grandmother, plus assorted surviving aunts, uncles and cousins. He moves in with them but feels alienated both from this extended family and from the larger Kansas City hip-hopping Sudanese community.
Back in Kenya, a shocked Benjamin watches video of William breaking down boxes in a storeroom, and proclaims that if the Dinka people wanted to do the work of slaves, they wouldn’t have fought the Arabs. (Final titles inform that “The Process” was abandoned in 2001.)Both Benjamin and William are extremely articulate and speak a poetic English rich with biblical metaphors and weighted with ethical gravitas. Howes’ myopic, moment-to-moment cinema verite approach can thus rely on the brothers’ verbal narrative to supply relevance, but the absence of any wider context fails to fully convey to U.S. viewers the irony of the brothers’ situation: Having survived one bloody campaign of forced assimilation to Islam, these children of a people who have fought for decades to preserve their cultural autonomy are now offered a one-way ticket to the American melting pot.