Interview: ‘22 Years From Home’ Director Malachi Leopold

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CHICAGO – The “Lost Boys” of Sudan in African history has carved a place in culture representing extreme acts of terror in the midst of civil war. Malachi Leopold, a Chicago producer/director, will debut his documentary profiling one of those Lost Boys – Kuek Gurang – in “22 Years From Home,” April 27th at the Music Box Theatre here.

The Chicago producer/director’s journey in making the film was a combination of coincidences and a sheer determination to tell the story. sat down for an interview with Malachi Leopold, on the history and background of his subject, the filmmaking techniques he employed and the lessons he derived from Kuek Gurang and the Lost Boys.

Get Back: Kuek Aleu Garang with His Father at the Site in Wernyol, Sudan Where He was Born in ‘22 Years From Home’
Get Back: Kuek Aleu Garang with His Father at the Site in Wernyol, Sudan Where He was Born in ‘22 Years From Home’
Photo Credit: Bennett-Robbins Productions How did you get connected to Kuek Gurang’s circumstance, and how did that connection morph into ‘22 Years from Home’?

Malachi Leopold: I was given a referral from my insurance agent to one of the volunteers with the Lost Boys here in Chicago. At the time I couldn’t point Sudan out on a map. I never heard of the Lost Boys, didn’t know there was a civil war there or that Darfur [the Western region of the Sudan] was not its own country. I was completely ignorant of the entire situation.

So when I was introduced to Kuek through that contact, I did some research to learn about the Lost Boys and was blown away by the story. My insurance agent had been thinking along the lines of me doing a video that Kuek and the other Lost Boys could use for fundraising. So I emailed Kuek, telling him that I had read about his story, was inspired and love to work with him to help the cause. He emailed me back an hour later and said that he’s love to get together, but it would have to wait three weeks because he was going back to Sudan to reunite with his family for the first time in 22 years.

I immediately called him and asked him if he’d ever shared his story, and if anyone was going along to document it. He replied that he thought it was time to share the story, but he didn’t know anyone to do it. So we met the next morning, and I only had three weeks to get everything together.

Three weeks later, I was stepping on the plane, having never been out of the country, with my director of photography Ian Issitt, six corporate sponsors, a check from the United Nations Refugee Agency and promotion through MTV.

HC: Briefly explain the history of the conflict that caused the Lost Boys.

ML: Sudan was created as a country by colonialism, as most of the countries in Africa were. Sudan is the largest country in Africa, about the size of Western Europe. In 1955 the first civil war broke out, and lasted until 1972. In 1983, the civil war erupted again, and that war carried on until 2005. That was the war that created the Lost Boys, with 4 million total Sudanese people displaced and 2.7 million killed. And Kuek was one of those Lost Boys.

HC: Describe the crew and filming circumstances. How did you begin, how many people did you have and what obstacles did you run into?

ML: For filming, it was just me and Ian Issitt. We went over there with five cameras between the two of us. We shot about a 100 hours of footage on an 8mm film camera, two HD cameras and I took an Hi-8 camera because I wanted some ‘home video’ looking footage. I also had one mini-DV camera to give to the children there to see what footage would come out of it.

The idea was to have a variety of different ‘looks’ to work with, in terms of this being a different sort of situation. With the 8mm, for example, the idea was to create moments that had a nostalgic look and feel, as if these were memories that Kuek was having.

As for obstacles, we were fortunate that we carried on our equipment bags, our camera backpacks. We checked everything else. When we arrived in Nairobi, seven out of eight of our bags were missing. But fortunately we had the cameras and tapes to shoot. We just didn’t have any clothes to wear. [laughs]

HC: Since you had no experiences or expectations traveling to the Sudan, what was your most persistent observation or feeling regarding your presence after a few weeks in country?

ML: I knew my perspective on life in general would be effected by being there, because I figured I’d see things that would effect how I view the world and my life. One of the things I definitely came back with is a complete inability to tolerate bullsh*t. [laughs] Having somebody complain about waiting for something for a few minutes is something I can no longer tolerate. I understand that suffering is relative, but I am amazed when I observe how bend out of shape people get, I just want to say, ‘try walking across the f*cking desert for a thousand miles.

But also I was surprised by the sense of ease I had when I was in the country. I had complete sense of calm and being at peace. I felt less tense being in a situation that was supposedly more dangerous than being here.

HC: In doing a cinema verité-type documentary, was there any moment during the filming that you or your crew felt intrusive?

ML: Kuek did ask us not to film one part, when he learned that his father was ill. He was having a discussion with his father and other members of his family on how to handle the situation. Kuek just asked it not to be part of the story.

But the most intensely personal moments, such as when he sees his Mother and Father for the first time, that was just we were there, and were allowed to be there and that was part of the story. It felt right that we were there for that moment.

Malachi Leopold of ‘22 Years From Home’
Malachi Leopold of ‘22 Years From Home’
Photo credit: Bennett-Robbins Productions

HC: In your connection to Kuek Gurang as a friend, what insights to his early suffering as a Lost Boy were most able to understand?

ML: For me, I think Kuek’s life is a very powerful metaphor in experience for anyone. Most people won’t have their literal village physically attacked. But I do believe that all of us experience, metaphorically, being driven from a place of safety and having to leave things behind. There is a sense in Kuek’s life where death and rebirth occur. I could identify with that, because there were times in my life where I also have felt the cycle of death and rebirth. With changes I’ve gone through, or hardships I’ve experienced, I could metaphorically understand that part of him.

HC: Since you worked closely with Kuek, what did you observe about the emotional make-up of him as a person and the Sudanese in general?

ML: Extremely generous, very positive and upbeat in general. Many of the people came out from that situation optimistic, not everyone, but there is something about them and their experience that made it amazing to see this commitment to rebuilding, in making a better life for themselves and their families, and their country. There is an enormous generosity.

HC: In your study of the situation, who is to blame for the situation with the Lost Boys, what is the root cause that exacerbated the civil war?

ML: It is a very complex set of circumstances, but there are major factors that contributed to the situation, the main factors involving poverty and lack of education. When you have a country whose literacy rate is ten percent, there is an educated view of power over an uneducated and impoverish country. It is very easy to take advantage of people, lie to people and create conflicts to maintain a certain instability, that keeps the powers-that-be in place. There is also a lack of leadership, with roots that go back to colonialism.

HC: What is Kuek Gurang doing right now?

ML: Kuek is executing a sister school program for the Sudan Initiative. It is pairing elementary schools to universities here as sister schools with the Wernyol [Sudan] primary school that Kuek is building in his village, which will provide education for 700 children.

HC: The Lost Boys have come into the consciousness of history through works like Dave Egger’s What is the What and your documentary. What lessons do you think the geopolitical structure will learn from the Lost Boys, or are we doomed to repeat refugee situations like this?

ML: I done necessarily think we’re doomed to repeat something. For me, the moment you say doomed, the responsibility is taken out of the situation. I think there is always choice involved and even in Sudan now people are faced with the choice of going back to war in order to solidify their independence or to find an alternative way and the responsibility is on everyone. Everybody is involved in that decision.

Looking at the variety of conflicts in the world, I think adults carry the weight of the responsibility for future conflicts, because of the seeds that are sown today. Meaning how children are treated, how they are impacted by war and victimized. Those kinds of things plant seeds, it doesn’t mean that the child is doomed to repeat those experiences. They have a choice. Like the Lost Boys, they could have become violent, which would have been understandable, but they chose to overcome and fight back by using education and economic development, which get at the root of some of these problems.

”22 Years From Home” has a major debut April 27th at 7:30pm at The Music Box Theatre in Chicago. Click here for ticket information. Featuring Kuek Gurang and produced and directed by Malachi Leopold for Bennett-Robbins Productions. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Senior Staff Writer

© 2010 Patrick McDonald,

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