Peter and Santino are only two among thousands of young men orphaned and displaced by decades of civil war in Sudan. In Lost Boys' introduction, simplistic paintings and boyish, matter-of-fact narration provide a child's-eye view of their plight. The war hit Sudan's Dinka tribe especially hard, with government forces killing the men and taking the women. ("They took the young girls and used them up," the off-screen speaker chillingly says.) But 20,000 young males escaped to flood into Kenyan refugee camps and became known worldwide as the "Lost Boys."
Filmmakers Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk use Lost Boys of Sudan to recount the African plight and American experiences of Peter and Santino, a transition comparable to going out of the frying pan and into the microwave.
In the Kenyan camp, Peter, Santino and scores of boys like them enjoy music and basketball, despite impoverished conditions that include mud huts and disintegrating shoes. When the United States admits 7,000 Lost Boys as refugees, Peter and Santino bid their home goodbye. A melancholy passion infuses a group dance at a farewell party, as if the teens seek to stamp Africa into their memories before they leave.
Peter and Santino prove to be innocent but not naive. Before they leave, an older man warns them not to act like "those people who wear the baggy jeans and do the bad things in America!" They radiate nervous excitement as they study airplane headphones, electric ovens and the scale of their new hometown of Houston.
Most of the boys and young men travel to America intending to attend school, work hard and send money back to Africa -- Peter still has siblings there. But the realities of living in the States prove far more difficult than they expect. They face bus rides of one to two hours a day for assembly line jobs, so they save money for a down payment on an automobile. Santino fails his driver's test (we're crestfallen when he hits a curb), but later causes an auto accident and faces $570 in fines while working a $7 an hour job.
To Santino's disappointment, Peter leaves Houston to pursue better things in Kansas City. As the film follows the parallel lives of the two young African men, Lost Boys resembles Hoop Dreams but finds more sociological insight than dramatic intensity. Between high school and a Wal-Mart job, Peter endures 18-hour days but gradually begins to make a niche for himself. Back in Houston, Santino struggles to pay rent and care for a roommate's health problems. He feels like an outsider who's running only to stand still.
In one of the film's strangest, saddest examples of culture shock, the boys discover they can't show one another affection by holding hands or calling each other "Dear One," as was commonly practiced in their African tribe. The endearments contain no sexual connotation, but they still don't fly in Texas.
Perhaps the sharpest cultural contrast comes in two successive scenes. First, Santino joyfully attends a small but spirited south Sudan Liberation Day celebration full of camaraderie, community and exultant revolutionary anthems. Then we see Peter awkwardly visit a pizza party of all-white Kansas church teens, who sing a religious tune with equal parts piety and boredom.
Lost Boys of Sudan doesn't capture the kind of big moments to make an audience stand up and cheer or sit down and cry, but Peter and Santino become engaging and sympathetic protagonists, and we appreciate their dilemma. The documentary aptly conveys an immigrant's shifting point of view of America. From outside our borders, the Statue of Liberty holds up a beacon of possibility, but within the U.S. economic system, it looks suspiciously like a middle finger.
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