LOST BOYS OF SUDAN
Peter speaks Dinka, Arabic, a little Swahili and heavily accented English. Before graduating from high school last year, he received an application for a National Merit Scholarship. It required that Peter write a biography. He began with the raid on his village, which killed his father and enslaved his mother and sisters. After that and for more years than Peter can remember--he was four when he lost his family--he hid with thousands of other boys in the jungles of Southern Sudan, fending off hunger, lion attacks and the country's devastating civil war. Peter, who finally reached the relative safety of a refugee camp in Kenya, is one of the "lost boys" of Sudan. Brought to the U.S. by an American aid agency, he makes his way with opportunistic efficiency through the unfamiliar New World.
Peter is one of two boys who are the subjects of Lost Boys of Sudan, a sublime documentary by American filmmakers Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk. He is the ostensible success story, an immigrant who makes the transition from mud hut to apartment living in Houston, Texas, on a four-month stipend from the federal government. Peter later travels to Kansas for the promise of an education and graduates from high school there. Santino, a member of the same indigenous Dinka tribe, stays behind in Houston in order to keep a low-paying job in a plastics factory. Peter and Santino's combined Houston income helped support three other Sudanese boys with whom they had emigrated, but when Peter relocates, he neglects to leave his share of that month's rent money.
Like Balseros (directed by Carles Bosch), a documentary about Cubans who arrive in America on rafts and then eke out a living in Texas, New Mexico and New York, Lost Boys of Sudan is a subtle but scathing consideration of American values. It draws a harsh picture of the American Dream and of us, the preservers of that dream. We admire Peter's pluck in first petitioning the Sudanese government for a birth certificate which states he's 17--there are no birth records in Southern Sudan--and then for getting into high school in a white, evangelistic enclave in Kansas after only a few months in the U.S. We are slightly repulsed by his sister's pertinacious demands for money--she reminds him that things haven't gotten any better in the refugee camp--and overlook his disloyalty to Santino. Santino is another story altogether.
For the "lost boy" who heeds the admonition of his elders in the Sudan to care for his "brothers," who delays his education in order to pay the rent, and who negotiates with a religious organization to get health care for a Sudanese immigrant with a hearing problem, we feel the kind of concern we would for an inner-city kid struggling to pass a math class. How will Santino ever get ahead? We blame the system: Some immigrants, we reason, cannot possibly survive the transition to a capitalistic society. At first, we don't feel outraged as much as we feel helpless to do anything about Santino.
It's easy to admire Peter, to cling to the Horatio Alger myth that hard work--and Peter works hard, holding down a job at Wal-Mart after school--leads inevitably to success. An equally facile conclusion is to decry the system which oppresses Santino, the government agency that fails to follow through, and the employers who rely on low-wage, hourly workers like Santino in order to pay dividends to their stockholders. In the end, are these "lost boys" better off than they were before? When Peter poses for his high-school graduation picture, do we feel proud because he is living proof of everything we want to believe--that anyone can realize the American Dream? If, on the other hand, Santino's values prevent him from making good on the dream, are we really to blame? Wisely, the filmmakers leave their audience to stumble through the answers, but they make one thing clear: "Lost" is a relative term, for the Sudanese boys and other immigrants who seek our shores, and for us, Americans living the American Dream or wishing we were.
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