In his article, “At the Edge of the World,” historian Achille Mbembe reminds Western readers of worsening conditions for refugees worldwide as the 20th century drew to a close. As it is difficult for refugees to return home to countries ravaged by decades-long civil wars or territorial disputes, refugee camps “cease to be a provisional place, a space of transit that is inhabited while awaiting a hypothetical return home.”
Instead, refugees (nearly 20 million worldwide, according to the U.N.‘s 2003 count) find themselves condemned to a permanent existence in rootless limbo, often in countries where their very presence is a source of political and economic strain. Lost Boys of the Sudan follows Peter Nyaroli Dut and Santino Majok Chuor, as they are plucked from the camp in Kenya where they have lived for nearly a decade, and transported to the United States of America.
Orphaned in the 1980s Sudanese civil war, in which northern Muslims attacked the Christian and animist south, Peter and Santino are just two among the nearly 20,000 “lost boys” who walked south out of Sudan and into Kenya. Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk’s film follows their journey to Houston, Texas and their first year in the States. Revealing the stark choices faced by so many refugees who receive the casual beneficence of the West, the documentary also shows reactions of Americans to the unknown in human form, as well as the filmmakers’ own prejudices, as they overlay the stories of Peter and Santino with social critique.
In a matter of months, both Santino and Peter reach turning points. On one side lies a warm community of fellow refugees, and on the other, the sink-or-swim expectations of the privileged individualists who have already snatched their slice of the American dream. Santino stays in Houston, tolerating a dead-end job and public housing (beset by gun-toting muggers) for the sake of belonging to a community. Peter cracks under the squalor of communal living and the constant frustration of his quest for education. He abruptly heads for Kansas, without even warning Santino, his oldest friend in Houston, of his departure.
Santino supports his unemployed roommates, as he cannot imagine the loneliness of living solo, and a videotaped correspondence course on how to become an electrician furnishes his only education. But he lives in the midst of fellow Sudanese refugees, who sing nostalgically of their villages and celebrate with patriotic chanting the now distant declaration of Southern Sudan’s independence. And he can send money back home.
In Kansas, shivering in the chilly Midwestern weather, Peter learns from an older refugee that if he can prove he is young enough, he can go to school. Peter claims a new birth certificate from Sudan and a junior’s slot in a suburban high school. As he starts to excel in class and at basketball, he works also minimum wage jobs from 7am one morning until 1am the next. Although Peter knows how poor he is (calling himself an “orphan” playing with the children of the rich), his friends in Kenya believe he possesses unimaginable wealth (an apartment, a television, a cell phone, a car).
Peter and Santino struggle not only with their own needs and ambitions, but also with U.S. racism. Santino, on his long bus journeys to and from work, finds himself the object of hostile stares. For the first time he feels shame at his color, recognizing that as a black African he is threatening to both to whites and to African Americans. One of his roommates complains that white people always think he’s going to beat them up because he is black, while a supervisor at Wal-Mart tells Peter and his two colleagues that, as Africans, they are used to the heat, and thus can work trolley collection in the broiling car park.
Lost Boys of the Sudan balances such unthinking hostility with random acts of kindness: while Peter is still in Houston, his workmates invite him to lunch and introduce him to the cheeseburger. In Kansas, a fellow student who shows him how to use the wheel in pottery class also introduces him to her friends. And sometimes, bigotry and kindness come together, as when Peter visits his guidance counselor to talk about taking the ACT. When the counselor, a middle-aged man, assumes the test is beyond this student’s ability, Peter displays his National Merit Scholar letter and his already completed college application biography, which the counselor begins to read aloud. At the end of the first paragraph, which relates the death of Peter’s parents, the older man’s voice breaks, and he reads the rest in silence, reaching out to squeeze Peter’s hand as it lies clenched on his thigh.
Not all sequences unfold with such honesty. Shot in a ragged vérité style, without narration, Lost Boys of Sudan parades its observer status, apparently letting the experiences of Santino and Peter speak for themselves. Yet they also function as naïfs whose odyssey reveals the vacuous ignorance of their host country’s population. One scene, edited to mock a young Christian teenager who responds “Awesome” when Peter explains he comes from Sudan, is unnecessarily disparaging. Such editorializing opens a potential easy “out” for U.S. viewers, who can feel morally superior to their compatriots (a temptation several of the film’s reviewers could not resist) and forget the global issues at stake.
Even thus flawed, Lost Boys of Sudan can raise awareness of one of the world’s most easily forgotten problems. Awareness, though, translates slowly, if ever, into effective action. In a story filed on 12 March 2004, in the UNHCR website’s News Section, comes a chilling echo of Peter and Santino’s stories. A nine-year-old boy recounts yet one more cycle in the aching loss of family and home:
I was with my father and mother in the field watching the cattle. A plane bombed the whole area. I saw my father fall on the ground, and ran away from the bombings. I don’t know if he is still alive, and I don’t know where my mother is. I met with other boys who did not know where their parents were either. We decided to stay together and started to walk. We met with older boys from our village, who warned us that the militia could kidnap us to enroll us in their groups if they find us. So we all decided to walk towards Chad. (2)
(1) Achille Mbembe, trans. Steven Rendall, “At the Edge of the World: Boundaries, Territoriality and Sovereignty in Africa,” in Apparduarai, Arjun, Guest Editor, Public Culture (Vol. 30/2000).