How odd that a movie about life on the other side of the world can sometimes open our eyes to our own community. Last Tuesday, a documentary called Lost Boys of Sudan drew an overflow crowd to the Belcourt for a screening and post-film panel discussion. On hand were members of Nashville's Sudanese population, many of whom, like the subjects of the movie, had been displaced by the country's bloody unrest.
By all accounts, the screening was an extraordinarily positive event. It launched a promising new international film series at the theater, and generated a discussion that lasted long after the show. It drew an audience of African immigrants who, it is said, have grave reservations about going to Hillsboro Village. Most importantly, it illuminated the struggles and hardships of a segment of Nashville's population that mostly goes unnoticed. The irony is that the city's Sudanese residents almost put a stop to the event.
The reasons whyand the reasons why the event not only transpired but ultimately succeededsay a lot about the nature of Nashville's immigrant communities. They also illustrate the tension of maintaining links to one's homeland, while trying to assimilate into a new, overpowering, and often alienating consumer culture.
The subject of Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk's documentary is the plight of Sudanese refugees left homeless by two decades of religious civil war. The movie records one year in the lives of Peter Dut and Santino Chuor, two "lost boys" who survived the looting and burning of their villages in southern Sudan to arrive at a Kenyan refugee center. Like a select few Sudanese refugees100 of whom made it to Nashvillethe two teenagers were chosen by charity organizations to come to America.
The film begins with the young men's preparations to fly to America, a journey that is "like you are going to heaven," as one boy in the film puts it. ("Lost boy" is a somewhat misleading term, since many of the refugees are in their 20s.) Peter moves from Houston to Kansas City, enrolling in high school and experiencing what one reviewer aptly called "the abundance and alienation of contemporary American suburbia." Back in Texas, Santino continues to lead the life of a factory worker. The two life stories yield a study of two different American lifestyles, that of the urban factory worker and that of the suburban teenager aspiring to attend college.
It's an open, direct film, one that does not exploit the history of the group (which numbers some 4,000 boys, according to some estimates) or go for easy sentiment. As Pastor John Awan, a leader of Nashville's Sudanese community, observed, "It's all true. Nothing there is a 'movie.'"
But when the Belcourt and the movie's sponsor, the refugee and immigration service department at Catholic Charities, announced that the Nashville event screening would feature a panel discussion with various "lost boys," the response was not what they expected. Representatives of Nashville's Sudanese population expressed worry that the movie was some kind of appropriation of their storiesor worse, a fictionalized distortion. They threatened to withdraw.
Getting their approval took a concentrated effort by Abraham Makat Makuach, the elected leader of Nashville's "lost boys." Group decisions and consensus remain vital components of the tribal culture of southern Sudan, and those customs have been carried to America. To secure their blessing for the panel discussion, Makuach not only spoke to all the refugees he represented but made sure that they had viewed the film, approved of it, and supported his and Awan's participation. He also spoke to Santino Chuor, one of the film's subjects, who had been his classmate in Kenya in the 1990s. After much negotiation, time, and money spent traveling to his friends' homes to discuss the event, he finally received the go-ahead just days before.
The capacity crowd that showed up at the Belcourt380 people, at last count, with many more turned awaygot an eye-opening lesson in the lives of Nashville's relocated refugees. Alongside Makuach and Awan on the panel were Asrar Babikir, a caseworker at Catholic Charities married to a well-known local Muslim leader; and Ed Smith, a member of a Hillsboro Presbyterian Church team that partnered with Catholic Charities to sponsor four Sudanese youth.
All testified to the truth of the movie's insights into the harsh adjustments that face Sudanese immigrants, which range from commonplace hassles (stovetop cooking, locking doors, rent) to the intricacies of driver's licenses and traffic court. Babakir, who assists the 51 Sudanese refugees that Catholic Charities brought to Nashville in 2001, spoke of their difficulties in finding medical assistance, jobs and apartments. The charity is only able to provide six months of help and financial aid; still, to this day, Babakir remains on call.
But the discussion quickly veered toward taboo subjects raised by the movie. Among the touchiest was the film's complex portrayal of race relations. After getting robbed by black muggers in their neighborhood, the movie's African subjects begin to see African Americans as criminalsa stereotype that a white church volunteer tries vainly to dispute. Some audience members wanted to know if the local Sudanese youth shared that view.
Initially disturbed by the film's depiction of Sudanese stereotyping, Makuach replied that the young man in the film was "confused" and that he misrepresented the views of most Sudanese. "It depends upon the neighborhood," he explained. "If you live in a bad neighborhood, you will have troubles, as it is in every country."
This only raised more sensitive issues. First, audience members asked if the refugees had adequate housing. Catholic Charities department director Holly Johnson, the panel moderator, responded that refugees were housed in communities in complete compliance with Department of State criteria: sanitary, safe, decent, affordable housing with working locks; access to a bus line; and no broken glass.
The audience then expressed concern about the deaths of two Sudanese immigrants shortly after they moved to Nashville in 2001. Within their first month of moving to Nashville, the Sudanese refugees received word that one of their own, a Sudanese native who was not one of the "lost boys," had been killedthe first murder in that neighborhood in more than 10 years, Johnson said, in a horrible coincidence.
Another Sudanese youth, Moses Pieny, happened to be visiting a friend in another Nashville neighborhood when he was tragically killed. He was "one of our brothers," Makuach said, and his death had shattered any illusion that America was heaven on earth. As Makuach put it, the young men had essentially come from one war to another.
Still other audience members wanted to know whether the United States' slow response to the tragic slaughter of tribes in southern Sudan today was a terrible case of history repeating. "Washington is doing a lot of things to the whole world," Makuach responded quickly, drawing sympathetic laughter from the crowd. "Washington has been acting slowly. They have been late."
Awan added that the American people should put pressure on Washington to act on behalf of the suffering Sudanese. "The death of one human being," said Awan, "is the death of all human beings."
And yet the mood of the screening, for the most part, was intensely upbeat. In the lobby afterwards, Hillsboro Village residents and native Nashvillians flooded the attending "lost boys." They expressed gratitude that the Sudanese immigrants were becoming a visible and vital part of the Nashville community. As Ed Smith pointed out, they might seem different at first, but "you drill down deep and bang, they are just like you."