- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

“Lost Boys of Sudan,” a documentary feature booked exclusively at Visions Cinema,

makes no large claims for itself and studiously avoids self-righteous posturing while observing certain aspects of the aftermath to a massive man-made calamity in Africa: prolonged civil war and despotism in Sudan, waged principally by an Islamic regime in the north against Christian and animist tribes in the south.

The work of a filmmaking team from the San Francisco Bay Area, “Lost Boys” alludes to a pair of young men who escaped certain death in the early 1990s during raids on their Dinka villages. In accord with tribal tradition, these boys and others like them tended cattle herds at centralized camps. This duty kept them out of the immediate line of fire when their communities were attacked and their parents killed. Orphaned fugitives, they survived a trek that took them to a refugee camp in Kenya, where we first encounter them in 2001.

Presumably, the boys have spent a decade or so growing up with displaced kinsmen. An American program to admit into the United States 4,000 of the 20,000 camp residents leads to a year of keeping tabs on Peter Nyarol Dut, who settles in Kansas City, and Santino Major Chuor, who remains in Houston, the original port of call for their particular group of arrivals.

The general pattern with Santino is to remain at a small factory job and send as much money as he can back to friends or family members or sponsors in Kenya. Frustrated with a lack of educational options, Peter shifts to Kansas City and enrolls in a suburban high school where he can secure a diploma within a year — and try out for the varsity basketball team, a dream that falls short of his expectations.

The filmmakers seem loathe to overstate or sensationalize any feature of the assimilation process. They could probably afford to be a little more playful about certain things that come up. For example, the newcomers feel it necessary to repress a cultural tradition of linking hands and touching frequently, since they don’t want to be misconstrued as homosexuals. There must have been several kinds of culture shock that didn’t make the final cut. The example that best lends itself to a film crew: Santino flunking his first driving test by taking a short cut across the curb when exiting the driveway of the motor vehicle office.

Well-spoken and exceptionally sympathetic camera subjects, Peter and Santino also have a way of using broken English in freshly expressive ways. For example, before departing Kenya, Peter gives away some cherished belongings and confides to his friends, “The lonely will reduce my size.” Talking about social misapprehensions in general, he says, “It is something that confused me in the betweens.” There’s never a shortage of confusion lurking in life’s betweens.

The movie is hazy about many things that would profit from more clarity. For example, the formal church affiliations of the visitors, if any. Or the nature of their allegiance to separatist political organizations and advocates, who seem to be presiding during a summer retreat in 2002 and prompt a rousing patriotic song. Even friendly receptions provide only limited protection for feelings of estrangement and regret. A prevailing emotional conflict appears to be summarized in these two young men, one of whom elects to make as much self-interested headway as he can, while the other remains a low-paid wage slave, in part because he’s plowing a large share of his earnings into contributions to the home front.

Such choices repeat themselves with new generations of immigrants. “Lost Boys of Sudan” updates the dilemma for a cinematically neglected band of pioneers.

**1/2

TITLE: “Lost Boys of Sudan”

RATING: No MPAA Rating (adult subject matter, with allusions to social calamities and family loss; fleeting profanity and sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Produced and directed by Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk. Principal photography by Mr. Shenk. Sound by Miss Mylan. Editing by Kim Roberts and Mark Becker. In English and Dinka with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 87 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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