This week's feature at the D.MAC digital theater is a perfect follow-up to the recent James' Journey to Jerusalem. Once again, we're along for the ride as an expeditionary force from Africa confronts the dehumanizing force of Western civilization. This time, though, the format is fly-on-the-wall documentary filmmaking instead of narrative artifice. An intimate portrait of two youthful refugees, Lost Boys of Sudan is never less than a quietly heart-rending experience.
From among the thousands of young Dinka men displaced by their country's war with Islamic fundamentalism, Santino Majok Chuor and Peter Nyarol Dut become two of the chosen few to earn passage to the United States. It's a life-saving windfall: Having endured a painful separation from their natural families and a mass exodus fraught with tiger attacks, they can say without a hint of irony that a voyage to America is like "going to heaven." Director/producers Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk underplay the horrors the boys have survived, parceling out their back stories as subtle, carefully timed disclosures. It's their stateside odyssey the film is concerned with, as living here becomes an insidious running game of expectation vs. reality.
Arriving with dreams of bettering themselves and then funneling the profits to the folks back home, Santino and Peter are quickly hipped to the knowledge that 21st-century American life means every man for himself and that a free-market economy leaves the underclass little time for activities that aren't directly related to subsistence. Santino settles in Houston, working the night shift at a plastics facility and taking care of fellow refugees too infirm for labor; for him at least, old-country egalitarianism dies hard. Peter, a more driven soul, makes his way to Kansas, where he enrolls in high school as (one presumes) the only quadrilingual student and pursues his three major goals of a diploma, a spot on the basketball team and a girlfriend. For both boys, satisfying the needs of the countrymen they left behind increasingly takes a back seat to the nebulous yet all-consuming drives of their adopted culture: to succeed and to fit in.
Mylan and Shenk wring far more out of the story than its obvious fish-out-of-water incongruities, partially because the participants keep tossing out quotes to die for. Peter and Santino haven't even left their native continent when one of their elders counsels, "Don't get like those people who wear the baggy jeans, who do all the bad things in America." How shocking and sad it is to realize that our fallacious concepts of social profiling extend all the way back to Africa.
Any overt prejudice the boys experienced here, however, goes unrecorded by the cameras. Peter's lily-white schoolmates are never depicted as anything less than welcoming, which only proves that they've learned how to behave when the little red light is on. Or maybe they're taking their orders from a higher authority: A scene in which the shy immigrant takes part in a Christian youth gathering seems bizarre to the point of hilarity. Yet an underlying evil is hinted at when Peter reveals that his boss at Wal-Mart assigned all the refugee workers to outdoor duties, reasoning that they were already used to the sun. Having a moment or two like that captured on film would make the movie an even more gripping document, if sacrificing the sinister composure that's just as effective a substitute.