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Tragedy and hope

The nonfiction 'Lost Boys of Sudan' paints a compelling portrait of two young men who immigrate to the U.S. and the country they now call home.

March 12, 2004|Manohla Dargis | Times Staff Writer

For well over a decade, newspapers across the country have run heart-rending stories about young men who escaped the ravages of the Sudanese civil war and found refuge in such far-flung homes as Vermont, Michigan and Nebraska. Colloquially known as "The Lost Boys of Sudan" -- named, evidently, after the lost boys in "Peter Pan" -- these refugees belong to a generation that, orphaned by war, has been left to the kindness of strangers and the occasionally baffling bureaucratic machinations of relief agencies.

In their heartbreak of a nonfiction film "Lost Boys of Sudan," directors Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk offer a part of the story that has gone underreported. Although the documentary centers on two young members of Sudan's Dinka tribe who immigrated to the United States, the filmmakers paint another, equally compelling portrait of the country to which the two refugees fled. In August 2001, Peter Nyarol Dut (then somewhere in his early 20s) and Santino Majok Chuor (then in his late teens) packed up their modest belongings, said their sorrowful goodbyes and boarded their first airplane. Within days the pair were living in Houston; not long afterward, one man was listening to Christian folk music and the other was working at a Kansas Wal-Mart.

Peter's and Santino's journey began years earlier. During the 1980s, their families became casualties in a civil war that has raged for more than two decades, leaving an estimated 2 million Sudanese dead and tens of thousands of children parentless. (In February, Amnesty International issued a report stating that despite recent peace talks, mass displacements and other human rights violations continue unabated.) Permanently separated from their families, Peter and Santino evaded starvation and even marauding lions as they fled on foot with thousands of other boys to a refugee camp in neighboring Kenya. There the two orphans lived until they became part of a relocation initiative launched the previous decade by the United Nations and the U.S. State Department.

During an all-too-brisk 87 minutes, "Lost Boys of Sudan" recounts what happened to Peter and Santino after they landed in the U.S., an adventure that spans minor triumph and deep disappointment. Using the observational style of classic direct cinema, Mylan and Shenk assume the kind of fly-on-the-wall approach meant to let the images speak for themselves. The storytelling benefits of this method are obvious. The camera faithfully follows Peter and Santino, shadowing the pair as they undergo orientation, move into new quarters, apply for jobs and make their tentative way in a foreign, sometimes hostile new environment. It doesn't take long to fall in love with these young men, in whose faces are etched tragedy and hope, the shadow of the past and a dream for the future.

Without giving away too much, suffice it to say that what befalls Peter and Santino doesn't always reflect well on Americans. Although the filmmakers sidestep the political motivations of the U.N. and the U.S., they nonetheless pose the question of what it means for this country to open its doors -- and wallets -- to the world. Apparently, the plight of these refugees is one we like to read about in newspapers but are more reluctant to face in the nominally exotic, very dark flesh. Too short by half, "Lost Boys of Sudan" affords frustratingly little by way of real analysis and history. But it does introduce us to two extraordinary young men whose faith in this country is almost as unbearably sad as their stories.

*

'Lost Boys of Sudan'

MPAA rating: Unrated.

Times guidelines: Emotionally intense, but suitable for all ages.

An Actual Films and Principe Productions co-production in association with ITVS and American Documentary Inc., released by Shadow Distribution. Co-directors, co-producers Megan Mylan, Jon Shenk. Cinematographer Jon Shenk. Sound mixer Megan Mylan. Editors Kim Roberts, Mark Becker. In English and Dinka, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes.

Exclusively at Laemmle's Fairfax, 7907 Beverly Blvd. (323) 655-4010 and Laemmle's One Colorado Cinemas, 42 Miller Alley, Pasadena (626) 744-1224.

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