Kuek Garang set the date for April 2009. He booked a round-trip plane ticket, saved money from his full-time job as a car attendant at the W Chicago-Lakeshore hotel, and bought gifts for the family he barely remembered. At 28, the Rogers Park resident was going home to Sudan for the first time in 22 years. Nothing could stop him.
Three weeks before he was to depart, Garang received an e-mail from a Chicago producer/director named Malachi Leopold. Through a friend, Leopold had learned that Garang was one of the Lost Boys of Sudan—the 27,000 children orphaned or displaced by the civil war that had ravaged that African country by the 1980s. (Many Lost Boys later settled in the United States.) Leopold wanted to meet the young refugee, hear his story, and learn more about his leadership in a charity that helped the boys acclimate to life in their adopted cities.
Garang couldn’t meet because of his imminent reunion plans. Then Leopold had an idea. He would join Garang and film the moment when the young man saw his parents for the first time in 22 years. “I was very open to sharing my story with the world because I think if there is such a horrible tragedy that was caused by human beings, we need to tell it and let people know that it can never be OK again,” says Garang.
Leopold, who would turn 30 on the day of departure, had made films for nonprofits such as the Joffrey Ballet, but he had never taken on a project of such magnitude. He did not possess a passport. He didn’t have the necessary immunizations to go to Africa nor did he have a crew. But for him, these problems were nothing that rush paperwork, a little networking, and Craigslist couldn’t solve. “It was an incredibly inspiring story that I wanted to share,” says Leopold, who captures the reunion in 22 Years from Home, a 36-minute documentary that premieres April 23rd at Chicago Filmmakers. The film juxtaposes images of Garang’s self-sufficiency in Chicago with his moments of childlike wonder as he takes off on a flight to the home he barely remembers. Garang’s dramatic and teary reunion with his mother brings her to her knees in a fit of emotion.
“A lot of visual things came in my mind at that moment: the way we were separated, the way I ran away, the way she ran away,” recalls Garang, who intends to use funds raised from the film’s proceeds to build elementary schools in his hometown. “It’s very hard for a mother and her child to have so many days between them, but we both knew it wasn’t our fault. The whole history of Sudan was what separated us.”
GO: 22 Years from Home premieres Friday, April 23rd, at Chicago Filmmakers, 5243 N. Clark St.; 773-293-1447, chicagofilmmakers.org.
Photograph: Chris Strong