Interview with Lost Boys of Sudan filmmaker Megan Mylan
Interview conducted via email by Jeanne O’Brien-Ebiri, December 16, 2005
What generally inspires you as a documentary filmmaker?
I’m motivated by the optimistic idea that the better we understand each other the better we’ll treat each other. As a filmmaker I look for stories that help build a sense of connection. I like to work in a long form observational style that lets viewers bring their own experiences and interpretations to what they are seeing. I strive to make films that change the way people think about their lives and what they can contribute to the world.
What were your goals in making Lost Boys of Sudan? What would you like a viewer to understand after seeing the film?
The Lost Boys story appealed to us for a number of reasons. My partner Jon Shenk and I saw the film as a way to tell the story of an underreported civil war in Sudan, an important international story. But we also felt like through the eyes of these young men coming to our country, it would be a unique way to look at ourselves and reveal this crazy modern world we’ve created in the U.S. The newcomer story is so central to who we are as a country. We all know the classic story of immigration in the United States. The myth is that the boat comes in to Ellis Island or to San Francisco Bay. The coasts have communities of immigrants, our big cities have Chinatowns and Little Italys and Japantowns. But the story of immigration in this new century is very much planes landing in small towns and medium-sized cities all over the country. There are “Lost Boys” living in nearly every state. In many communities they were the first Sudanese or even the first Africans to arrive in their community. We hope that viewers will get a real sense of what it means for us to be a land of immigrants. Who are Americans today? What does that mean? If viewers take one thing away from the film, I hope it’s an appreciation of how hard it is to start a life in a new culture and what a difference simply offering your friendship to a newcomer can make.
What were some of the difficulties and challenges you experienced in making this film? When filming, how do you hold your emotions back when you see injustice or suffering?
The most challenging part of making Lost Boys of Sudan, beyond the usual filmmaking struggles of fundraising, permissions and distribution, was not being able to be the friends that Peter and Santino so desperately needed. As filmmakers trying to give an honest portrayal of the struggle to start life in a new, strange country, we had to keep a certain degree of distance from and intervene in their lives as little as possible. It wasn’t an easy thing to do. It was so tempting to just help the guys find good jobs, sign up for community college and make new friends and discuss with them the breadth of who we are as a country. We knew if we did that, we would make life for Peter and Santino better, but not come away with a film that could help people all across the U.S. understand the challenges of being a newcomer to America. We explained that to Peter and Santino during production, but there were many days where seemingly simple things weighed heavily on them and that was hard to watch. Happily, now that the film is finished we can have a real friendship with Peter and Santino and offer them some of the help we had to hold back on. We are so gratified to see that the film does motivate people to extend themselves in a whole range of important ways and that through the film both Peter and Santino have full scholarships to college.
Did your initial theories or feelings towards the subject change during filming? If so, how or in what ways? How do you incorporate (or ignore) those changes into the filmmaking experience?
The Lost Boys group had received a fair amount of press attention and we expected that there would be lots of people showing up on their doorstep wanting to get to know them and to support them. We also thought as young men who had suffered intense trauma at a very young age there would likely be some sort of trauma therapy sessions. Unfortunately, for the guys we spent time with that wasn’t so. We had to just step back and let their story be what it was rather than trying to make it fit into our preconceived idea.
What are you currently working on or what would you like to be working on?
I am currently directing a documentary that follows three people on the frontlines of the fight for racial equality in Brazil.
The viewing experience of this documentary for an American audience is rattling and interesting, because it offers Americans to see their culture and themselves through foreign eyes in a particularly effective way. Your filmmaking style contributes greatly to this effect. Was this your intent from the start?
The cinema verité style of the film was part of the project from the beginning. My partner Jon Shenk and I both like to work in an observational style and were committed to letting Santino and Peter and the other boys tell their own story in a very natural way without our commenting directly on what was happening to them through narration or by the interview questions we asked. For me, observational style films to a greater degree allow the audience to come to their own conclusions. Not every film subject lends itself to this style of filmmaking.
As a filmmaker interested in making observational films about international social issues, I am constantly looking around the world for stories that can be told visually, subjects that have a lot layers to them and compelling characters. The “Lost Boys” story lent itself well to this style of filmmaking, it’s a classic filmic journey tale, the story touches on a whole range of themes, and the young Sudanese from the “Lost Boys” group are engaging and articulate.
Has Lost Boys of Sudan screened in Sudan?
The film has not screened in Sudan yet that we know of, as things are still very desperate there. The film has screened in the Kakuma Kenya refugee camp where the “Lost Boys” spent most of their childhood. An organization called FilmAid is screening the film in refugee camps around the world. Additionally, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has asked to use portions of the film in their orientation sessions to give refugees a better sense of what to expect from life in America.