POV: How would you describe the story of Lost Boys of Sudan?
Megan Mylan: Our film tells the story of two young refugees of Sudan's civil war. They lost their parents as young boys and lived for nearly a decade in refugee camps in both Ethiopia and Kenya, and are now coming to the United States. They're part of a large group of Sudanese young men known as "the lost boys of Sudan." And our film takes them from their last few days in their Kenyan refugee camp through their first year in America.
Jon Shenk: Lost Boys of Sudan is a film about two of several thousand young men with an unbelievable back story: their villages burned, their families killed, running from lions and wild animals. Some great percentage died along the way on this journey. The film tells the story of this group of people coming to the United States, getting what they saw as an incredible chance at starting their lives over, in a land that they saw as a place of opportunity. As they say in the film, it was as if they were going to heaven. The film looks at what happens to that expectation, to those people and to their emotional and daily lives as they make that transition.
POV: How did you find this story?
Mylan: We had read a lot in the press about the "lost boys" and felt like it was this natural, great journey story. But then I had the opportunity to meet some of the young men who live in San Jose here, close to where we live in San Francisco. Once you meet them you see that they're these engaging, articulate, determined young men and there was just no question that we had to tell this story.
Shenk: As a documentary filmmaker, you're constantly looking around the world for stories that can be told visually. And this just screamed out visual storytelling. It's a journey, it's a classic filmic tale in that regard. We knew our characters were going to go through this incredible life change. We had the hunch that it would dredge up a lot of things from their past. Suddenly these people were going to be shaken up, literally lifted off the ground, and plopped down in a new place. We thought that, at the very least, they're going to have to explain their story to new people they meet in a way that is foreign to them and in a language that is not their first language. The list just went on with this story: the raw emotion, to be able to put yourself in a situation where the people that you're following are likely to show you something that is true to them and therefore true about human nature and humanity. And all of those things just sort of came together and it seemed like the ideal verité film.
POV: Why was the topic important?
Mylan: The story appealed to us for a number of reasons. It was a way to tell the story of this underreported civil war in Sudan, an important international story. But we also felt like through the eyes of these young men coming to our country, we'd find a unique way to look at ourselves. This newcomer story is so central to who we are as a country. We hope that viewers will get a real sense of what it means for us to be a land of immigrants. Who are Americans today? What does that mean? We feel like these guys' stories really reveal that.
Shenk: It's true. Americans don't know a lot about what goes on in other countries. As a country I think we're infamous in the global community for not knowing what is happening to our next-door neighbors, let alone Sudan, or East Timor or Indonesia.
We're a big country. We're surrounded by oceans. We're relatively isolated. And we have a lot of work to do as a nation and as a culture in this modern, interconnected world. I think Americans are waking up to that a little bit. It's going to be something that our country deals with for the next few generations: figuring out where we stand in this whole thing.
So in a sense, I guess you could say that we're on the front lines of that in a small way, trying to reach out and connect to a story that otherwise people probably wouldn't know about. And this is actually a relatively unknown story. I mean, you talk to people who read national newspapers and magazines, but even those people don't really know. They know a kind of surface story, but when you spend a year and a half with a group of people filming them, they're going to come alive in three dimensions to you. You're going to understand things about their lives, their outlook, their emotional take and their psychology. And they will cease to become an intellectual idea about how terrible it is somewhere. They will become your neighbor. And they very much are.
We all know the story of immigration in the United States. The myth is that the boat comes in to Ellis Island or to San Francisco Bay and the coasts have communities of immigrants. Our big cities [have] Chinatowns and Little Italys and Japantowns. But the story of immigration in this new century is very much planes landing in small towns and medium-sized cities all over the country. There are lost boys in almost every state. There are lost boys who saw snow for the first time in Fargo, North Dakota. And there are ones in Seattle and San Diego and Erie, Pennsylvania. And when we were in the camp and we saw this list of where these guys were ending up, we had never been to a lot of these places.
The other part of the story is that these guys are a fraction of the immigrants who come here. So along with the Sudanese coming into these communities, there are people from all over the world. You go into a Wal-Mart now in Olathe, Kansas — which is where we were filming a lot of our film — there are people from Egypt and Southeast Asia and Sudan and, sometimes you don't see African-Americans, but you see Africans in these small towns. So that's just an incredible thing to realize: that we're sort of at the cusp of our country really having a major lesson in foreign affairs.
POV: How long did it take to make the film and how did filming Peter and Santino affect their experience during that time?
Mylan: It took us two years to make the film, from preproduction through the final editing. There was a lot of logistics involved in getting permission to film in the refugee camp in Kenya. Our first shoot was in Kakuma, Kenya, which is a refugee camp just south of the Sudan border. When we set out to choose our main characters, there were a hundred young men that were going to be flying to the States on the Sunday that we were there to film. They were part of the thirty-eight hundred young Sudanese who were resettled in the US that year. Of those hundred, we went through and met about eighty-five of them and really tried to choose two characters with slightly different outlooks, expectations and personalities. And also two people that we would enjoy spending a year with. So we then continued to film them a little over a year, their first year here. We would film with each character once a month, and then just stay in constant phone contact with them because every day something new happened.
The fact that we were filming with Santino and Peter, our two main characters, I think gave them a sense of importance — a recognition of the fact that their story was an important one, not just to Sudanese, but to Americans, to native-born Americans. To some degree they had already seen journalists coming into the camp — and we were known as "the journalist." They definitely had an idea that this event of nearly four thousand lost boys who had survived this journey across Africa now going to America was a story. But what Jon and I really tried to convey to Peter and Santino was that once they landed, the story wasn't over. We wanted people to learn what it takes to make your life work in this new country — who helps you and who doesn't and what do you understand and what's confusing. So I think we were constantly having a dialogue with them about why we wanted to tell their story and why the story wasn't over when they landed. And I think that's something that documentary does so well — taking the story to that next level and waiting to see what happens.