Lost Boys of Sudan

2004, 87 minutes
Directors/Producers: Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk
Distributed by Actual Films

Santino Majok Chuor looks for his name on the flight list posted in Kakuma Refugee camp. August, 2001. Photo: Jon Shenk
            
 Stills 
   
 Essay 
      

Lost Boys of Sudan

 

Lost Boys of Sudan follows two Sudanese refugees on an extraordinary journey from Africa to America. In America, the “Lost Boys” are amazed by the abundance of food (“We eat 24 hours a day and we still have food left!”); taken aback by racism ("I’m so black compared to the black people who live here.”); asked to tell their story ("I've been on my own since I was four years old."); saddened by the American ethos of rugged individualism; and made to feel guilty by relatives calling from Africa who cannot understand why they don’t send more money. Lost Boys of Sudan says a great deal about the reality of Africa today, but even more about us. The most telling analyses of America are, inevitably, the work of outsiders.

For the last twenty years, civil war has raged in Sudan, killing an estimated two million people and displacing more than four million. Although they are currently on the verge of a peace accord, the Islamic fundamentalist government in the North has been fighting Southern Sudanese separatists who are Christian and Animist. Forced famine, modern day slavery, and attacks deliberately targeting civilians plague Southern Sudan. Hardest hit have been the cattle-herding Dinka tribe.

In the late 1980’s Dinka villages throughout the South were destroyed. Scores of adult men were killed. Women and girls were taken into slavery. Thousands of Dinka boys who traditionally had spent time away from their village in cattle camps, survived the attacks. They were forced to flee into the bush. A group of 20,000 young boys formed, wandering the desert seeking safety. They became known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan." The boys crossed hundreds of miles of desert; they faced enemy fire, lion attack and hunger. Thousands died along the way. The survivors found safe-haven in UN refugee camps in Ethiopia and then Kenya. With peace in Sudan unforeseeable and without family or opportunity in the camp, the U.S. government decided to bring the "Lost Boys" to America. In 2001, four thousand of the boys, who are now young men, were given high priority refugee status and began settling all across America. The process was interrupted by the post-9/11 refugee policy but recently began again – “Lost Boys” continue to arrive in communities all over America.

We meet Peter Nyarol Dut and Santino Majok Chuor, the film's two main characters, as they say their farewells at the refugee camp. The bonds among the young men, formed from the common nightmare they endured, seem to provide them with spiritual solace. Indeed, these refugees as a group have more than a little to teach us about overcoming major emotional trauma. Santino and Peter promise never to forget their comrades and to tell their story in the U.S. Before their departure both Santino and Peter receive guidance from their elders who instill in them the importance of the opportunity they are being given and direct them to return to Sudan one day to help their people.

On September 1, 2001, Peter and Santino arrive in Houston, Texas and begin to face the everyday challenges of their new lives: learning to ride the bus, night-shift jobs, car payments and sending money home to Africa. The film intimately follows their first year of struggle to find their place in an American society they were ill-prepared for and that understands them even less. Their journey and the film raise questions: is America’s society of plenty available to immigrants? How will the reality of their new lives compare to their expectations of the U.S. as the land of education and financial opportunity? How effective is the U.S. response to this crisis? Woven throughout the film is a discussion of race. To what degree do the young men find kinship with African Americans? They realize that they have darker skin than African Americans, and they have long discussions about the subtleties of the social implications of the racial spectrum in the U.S. Will they choose to identify with other immigrants? What role will their Christianity play in their American lives? As Peter and Santino struggle to create new lives for themselves, hold onto their traditions and cope with the psychological scars of their past, they help us look at issues of immigration, foreign aid, race and cultural identity in a new way.

 

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