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and Jon Shenk
Over the past 20 years, some 20,000 orphaned boys from Southern Sudan have fled that country’s ongoing civil war and set across the desert toward Kenya. Many didn’t survive the journey, but by the early-’90s, refugee camps in Kenya held thousands of Sudanese boys and young men. In 2001, 4,000 of them began to be relocated to the United States, a country that one boy describes, sight unseen, as “heaven.” Alas, the two principal figures in Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk’s Lost Boys of Sudan end up not in paradise but in Houston. It proves to be, at best, a sort of garden-apartment purgatory. The more motivated of the two, Peter Nyarol Dut, wisely flees for Kansas, where rents are cheaper, commutes shorter, and antagonisms lower. Santino Majok Chuor remains in Texas, battling economic constraints, defying traffic laws, and dealing with the tendency of some African-Americans to take the Sudanese newcomers for easy marks. This documentary intimately observes Peter and Santino’s struggles with American life, but not why they happened. Were the two teenagers—and, by implication, several thousand more Sudanese youths—simply dumped into Middle America and left on their own to get into high school and find a McJob? It certainly seems that way from this film, which is yet more proof that a little cinéma vérité is a dangerous thing. Mylan and Shenk, who also shot the movie, spent a reasonable amount of time with Santino and more with Peter, who complicated the project by leaving town. But the various American authority figures who appear here do so only when they’re talking to one of the refugees, and they generally seem as bewildered as their charges. If the idea was to have the viewer share Peter and Santino’s alienation, then Lost Boys of Sudan is a success. An explanation of how the refugee program works—or doesn’t—would add a lot to this intriguing but incomplete documentary. —Mark Jenkins