Sunday, February 15, 2009
Of Slumdogs & Lost Boys: Two Important Films
I'm not in the habit of advertising films, but I am accustomed to making recommendations to my students. Recently, I had mentioned to a class the provocative documentary God Grew Tired of Us. This film follows the lives of three black African Dinka boys from their early childhood in southern Sudan to adulthood and new homes and jobs in the United States. But their journey is not an easy one.
In the film we learn that the three are members of the so-called "lost boys," children who were chased from their villages along the Nile by hordes of genocide-minded Arab marauders from Sudan's north. After a stint in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, they proceeded to another, safer camp in Kenya (1000 miles on foot from their original homes). There they received aid from the UN and various other organizations, and over the course of 10 years, a healthy diet of math, science and English study. In 2001, the US government accepted 3800 of these boys (and some girls) for resettlement in various US cities.
The film's main focus is on the cultural and emotional development of the three boys, John Dau, Daniel and Panther, from their place as members of the tightly-knit Kakuma Refugee Camp community to struggling immigrants who face new hardships as they try to adopt the American way of life. For young men who had never slept in beds, seen electric lights or faced cold Midwestern American winters, they did remarkably well. In fact, when John Dau tells us in his own words how he had to forsake university classes so as to keep his three jobs with the ultimate goal of reuniting with his mother, who languished as a refugee herself in a camp in Uganda, we see much more than the ability to adapt; this film's story is a celebration of amazing sacrifice and the grit of the human spirit.
That same spirit is presented in the feature film, Slumdog Millionaire. On Saturday I was feeling restless. What to do on Valentine's Day that would not be the same old schmaltzy thing? Then I remembered seeing an advertisement by the bus stop about the latest Danny Boyle film (he the director of Trainspotting and The Beach). I had also read about how the film had fetched four Golden Globe Awards with a little known cast and a far-flung story: a boy from the ghetto of Mumbai achieves fame and fortune on a TV game show.
But the film is much more than that. What we see is Mumbai as it rocks from the ancient haze of the 20th to the miracle growth of the 21 century, as it pulses from squalor to splendor, all from the perspective of not one but two of its least fortunate sons, brothers Salim and Jamal, who worm their way out of harm's way time and time again, only to collide on the tracks of their respective destinies.
Mildly put, I was blown away by the film, from the alleys and vistas of the brothers' childhood escapades to the raging rhythms of the soundtrack. The film also scored high for me on its other production values: dialogue (Hindi & English), pace, acting, and ultimately, that fantastical story, one that becomes more believable with each game show question to which the more fortunate brother, Jamal, demonstrates an intimate understanding of the answer.
What do these two films have in common? Both speak of dirty pants, unfair circumstances and defiled childhoods, and those dusty but persistent dreams. They also show us that there truly is good facing the evil, that a helping hand can lead to a well-fed belly and a beautiful smile, and that no matter what the odds, there is a chance -- just a chance -- for anyone to achieve far more than his or her single prayer might have ever asked for.
For an inside view of the lives of two Mumbai ghetto children who played main characters in the film, read here.