Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Power of the Pump

Last night King called me to tell me that one of his cousins in South Sudan contacted him to tell him the Northern Arab militia is again setting fire to the villages in the South. When his People flee, they capture them and "slice their throats like goats".  King said, "Valerie, we must do something." "Do something" reverberated in my head over and over. I am not a political leader with influence. I am not a diplomat with opportunities to meet with dignitaries. I am a filmmaker. That is my voice; that is my sphere of influence. But if no one sees this film, if we don't raise the funds to finish the project, I have failed King.

The genocide is about oil. We support South Sudan. China supports northern Sudan. China owns our debt. Hmmm. The oil is under the soil in the South; the pipelines empty out in the North. The government in the North won't pay the government in the South a fraction of what the commodity is worth per barrel. The government in the South turns off the flow. The government in the North goes and kills King's People, innocent villagers living peacefully in huts that don't use gas or oil or anything made from it. They are nowhere near a city. They have no electricity, no cars. They make fire rubbing two sticks together to cook their meager meals. Real old school. Live caveman oldschool.

We buy gas without a care in the world. And everytime we do, we are part of the problem. I am no hippie, I assure you, and I have no interest in rubbing two sticks together in order to eat. But there has to be better way than murdering innocent people to get a good value at the pump. Ya think? Would we take a stand if every time we filled up our SUVs we had to watch a villager have their throat slit after we swiped our credit card before the gas was released from the pump? I think so.

And that is why I want this film to be seen by the world, because if consumers knew, they would demand change. The power of the consumer is the most powerful voice we have. Blood diamonds. When we were educated about those atrocities, sales declined dramatically and now we hear the phrase "conflict free diamonds" when we shop for engagement rings in addition to the four C's. We don't "need" diamonds and we do need gas but this nonetheless demonstrates the power of the voice of the consumer. We have the power to make the same change here. King is the voice of his People; I am his voice through film; you are our collective voice to your network to support this important film.

King and I implore you to share this powerful message.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

$1 for each child that runs today

Today 1,000 newly orphaned South Sudan children will run from tyranny starving, dehydrated with only grass in their tummies to refugees camps to be interred indefinitely as the brutal conflict over oil continues in their homeland creating a new generation of Lost Boys and Girls. 28 family members  of Olympic marathoner Guor Marial were killed in the war when he was a boy in what is today South Sudan and he was one of those little Lost Boys like King Deng in the refugee camp. Guor has run and walked a lifetime and now these new Lost Children will endure every bit of the hardship he did.  They have experienced a depth of tragedy only their tribal brothers and sisters can understand.

But we have a choice--to hear their cries this time before tomorrow comes and another 1,000 orphans wander to this same destiny. We can do something. We can support King Deng in his dream of telling his story for the world to hear because seemingly, we have not or there would not be a new generation of Lost Children. Guor still awaits his visa to travel to London to run as an independent without a country under the Olympic flag yet the Visa commercial narrated by Morgan Freeman plays on to tug at our heartstrings to entice us to watch the coverage. Is sitting in our comfortable, air conditioned living rooms all we can do? I think not and I know not.

Guor is running for so much more than a race. He is running for freedom. He is running for the solidarity of his newly formed nation. He is running for his family. He is running for the new Lost Boys and Girls. He is running for his King. And he is running for Muturo, the word for God in his native language.

His family that remains in war-torn South Sudan will trek 40 miles one way to the one television there is to watch Guor run in the Olympics. When will this journey end? King Deng says it can end today. He believes with his entire being that peace will reign in his country. If we hear his story and message through our film, it can end.

Please send this YouTube link of the trailer for the film to your friends, followers and family: King Deng, The Original Lost Boy of Sudan. I believe if humanity really knew the devastation King and his people have been through, they would want an end to it immediately.

In order for King to return to his homeland and for us to film it, we must raise $1,000 each day for the next 49 days through our Kickstarter fundraising website, the funding platform Robert Redford created through the Sundance Film Festival. As you can imagine, to be selected by this highly prestigious organization is quite competitive. And they chose my project.

If you do the math, that's $1 per child each day. Sure we can do that...

Friday, July 27, 2012

These Colors Were Not Allowed To Run

Guor Marial, who we have all seen running in the global Visa television commercials narrated by Morgan Freeman promoting the Olympics, had been told by the International Olympic Committee that he was barred from representing his country of Southern Sudan and that he must run under the flag of the nation of his oppressors. I could not believe my eyes as I read this in the news. I thought, Who in what alternate universe demands that of someone?

I asked King today what he thought. He said, "This is shocking news for me as a King when I heard that my countryman and fellow Lost Boy Guor Marial is now known to the world as an athlete without a country. The world knows that Southern Sudan became an independent country in its own right on July 9, 2011, the newest country, 193rd in the world I believe. For me as King, I disagree with the decision of the IOC who disgraces my brother Guor Marial as runner now without a country. He is from Southern Sudan and he must carry his country flag.

I have seen first-hand the pride King and his People have as they state proudly that they carry an I.D. card proclaiming they are from Southern Sudan. In fact, I have it on film. I can't imagine the devastation Guor must feel today as the Olympics commence. He escaped genocide and ran for his life for safety in the hope of one day returning to a country at peace. He prepared his entire life to be an Olympian but more importantly he prepared to represent his country.

The levels of "losthood" are ever-present in their daily lives, like a wave that knocks you down over and over trying to force you under. But to paraphrase Maya Angelou, Slowly they rise. I marvel each day as King has a singleminded belief that one day Southern Sudan will be at peace. He has complete trust and faith in God in his every waking moment and a postive disposition that is infectious. Each day my King calls me to impart words of wisdom and hope. He bolsters my spirit and can hear when I am questioning the universe.
But in the end, he was pragmatic. King continued to say, "Today Guor had no choice. There was no way he could represent those that ran him out of his homeland but we will keep the faith that the world will do better tomorrow. For Guar runs as a free man with his brothers and sisters in his heart. And for the land in our hearts, these colors were not allowed to run."

South Sudan not eligible to compete in the London Olympic Games under IOC rules. (AFP)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Road to Independence is Paved with Children

On July 4th, King called to wish me Happy Independence Day. I asked him how he was going to spend the day and if he would see some fireworks at night. He said, like he always does, that he loves America and is so grateful for his life here in safety, but that fireworks are no good for him; the sound of them exploding takes him back to the days of his childhood when he was running for his life and he preferred to celebrate in his heart in a peaceful manner.

Then on July 8th, I celebrated with King Deng and his community their first anniversary of Southern Sudan’s Independence from Northern Sudan. Southern Sudan became the newest nation on our planet on July 9th, 2011. His People gathered to commemorate this occasion with native traditions, music and food. As I was greeted by his warm and welcoming countrymen and women, I was struck by the thought: what would my life look like as an adult if at the age of seven I was severed from my parents, culture and country in an instant running from bullets and bombs like they were? If I survived the trek through the sweltering Sahara and endless years held captive with other children in refugee camps eating rations of rice, what heritage would I have to pass on to my children?

The answer to that question for me would be almost nothing. I would not be well-versed in my traditions, holidays, food, music, and 20-30 years later, distant memories would be washed away from the ebb and flow of time. I would be struggling by now to remember my father’s face, the smell of my mother’s hair, the gentle touch of my grandmother tucking me in at night, the sound of their voices echoing in my mind. How do you maintain your history when it was ripped out from under you? Not a single treasure to carry with you to trigger your memory or comfort you.

When the event was in full swing, for an etheral moment I stood frozen in time in the center of the 200 tribal people surrounding me. I slowly turned in a 360 degree pan to see the only physical reminders they took with them were their scars. Some of the individuals who were probably around 11 when they fled had tribal markings on their faces indicating their beginning of manhood or womanhood. But the others too had scars--deeply gauged skin from bullets, shrapnel or knives; eye injuries (eyes partially or fully closed). Some limping. Some walking with a cane. And then there were those who had injuries from trauma who were not quite right who were acting a little off kilter. Their tribemates were especially gentle and caring to them. I marveled at the clearly visible tightknit brotherhood and sisterhood they have.

I shifted my gaze to their children. They not like their parents. They are steeped in Americana—their clothes, their toys, their sense of culture--with little sense of the significance of this day. They had not experienced the devastating hardships of their parents, and thank God for that. These children may never see the country that is their birthright because fighting over the rich oil resources in the land their parents call home has not ended a generation later. History is repeating itself. Their villages are being ransacked. Each day 1,000 orphaned children trek to refugee camps with grass in their tummies, dehydrated with no end in sight creating a new generation of Lost Boys and Lost Girls. I see their future. They are here standing 200 strong all around me.

King took centerstage to address his People and I brought my attention to his message: "Today is a celebration but we must continue to stand up for our country. We cannot be silent as our children continue to suffer and are thrust from their culture. Every day there are more Lost Boys and Girls. If 20 years from now they are in the same position we are in today, what will we have accomplished? I pray for peace in Southern Sudan and for the world. We are all sisters and brothers and the fighting must stop. 2 million of our people have died and thousands of children orphaned. When will it be enough?"

King and his People strive relentlessly each day to help one another keep their memories alive, to carry on their traditions, to speak their many languages to maintain their culture in exile. Together my King and I are telling his story and the story of his People for the world to know. And for the children, all the Lost Boys and Girls, I want to give them a window to their past that connects them to their history to share with their children and their children's children. I want to take them on King’s journey so they can see with their own eyes where they came from and how they got here. How else can you move forward as a cohesive People? That is why it is so important for King to return to his village in Southern Sudan to come full circle, to connect their past, present and future. I plan to capture every moment on film. I invite you to follow us....

Monday, July 2, 2012

From Dusk Until (Will There Ever Really Be a) Dawn

Tonight we did a shoot at dusk for the film. As the sun was setting, we gathered by a river. After setting up the camera, sound checks and getting the lighting just right, King stood at water's edge and spontaneously started singing one of his native tribal songs. The birds were chirping in concert with him; the buzzing of the mosquitos and trickling of the water his percussion. Great joy swept across his face as he sang the words in his native language with pride. But in an instant, as he continued to chant, I could see the devastation of his People wash over him. He was immediately transported back in time. He wept from the depth of his soul for the father and mother he lost, for the senseless murder of his People, and so much more. The abysmal pain of a lifetime of tragedies gripped him.

For a filmmaker to capture this type of unscripted, organic moment is a dream shot, one that inspires them to start writing award acceptance speeches. With cameras rolling, I held myself back as long as I could, my own tears flowing. Then as he knelt down overcome by the memories that flooded his mind sobbing a generation of tears, I could not bear to let him cry alone. I entered the shot, knelt down with him and we sobbed together in silence. I felt his pain. I closed my eyes and saw him running for his life as a boy, starving in the desert sun, watching his tribe members being eaten alive by hyenas and lions. I heard the sound of bombs in my head.

I then stood up and let King have his own time to come back to the present and I did the same. I looked around at the idyllic setting in the wilderness and felt that we were in God's presence. He said he has always felt the presence of God in his life. That even in the darkest moments, he felt he was walking with God. I said my own silent prayer in this moment and asked for Him to hear King's prayers for this second generation of Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan to be spared the atrocities he and his tribemates endured.

The sun was going over the horizon. We were losing natural light. We had to set up our next shot... It is hard to be the person who takes King and his people back to those bad places in their past. If you were sitting with a friend at Starbuck's you would not be incessantly asking them to bring you into the most painful moments of their life. But King acknowledges that I go with them on that journey each and every time and says, "Valerie, it is okay. We have to tell our story. There is no other way to do this. We all understand."

A filmmaker is not a trauma therapist. In this situation for this project, I am the vessel for King's voice and he is the voice of his people. Filmmakers can sometimes work on more than one project at a time that are in various stages of development and I am no different. The switch-up is jarring for me. Today I go from genocide in Southern Sudan to espionage and romance in Europe. Calling in a trauma therapist doesn't sound like a bad idea because you have to be equally present for both.

No matter what I am ever going through as trite or important it may be, King is always there to provide support, inspiration and ancestral wisdom. He has a keen intuition and can cut through all the little details to get to clarity. No matter what his people have been put through, King sees the dawn. He has a love for humanity and a hopefulness that we will wake up...that there will someday be peace in Southern Sudan.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Birthday Disconnect

Yesterday was my birthday. Friends in the neighborhood showed up at our door with cake and balloons in hand. They said on their walk over many of the children in the subdivision came running to ask where they were going and who the goodies were for. The rest of the day I spent receiving little visitors bearing homemade construction paper and crayoned cards, newspaper wrapped candy, and personally designed beaded bracelets. These are beautiful children ranging in age from 6 to 11 doing what children should be doing at that age--frolicking joyfully. I truly thank them for making my birthday special.

Unfortunately for King Deng, his blissful childhood where he helped his father tend animals in his village was cut short by war. The strife was not of his people's making, but they suffered greatly. He did not have the luxury of frivolity once his village was attacked. Once that happened, he and his peers were running for their lives never to see their parents again. And King Deng was no longer a-boy-who-would-be-King. He became, by the acts of horrible circumstance, a boy king, who led his People through the worst time of their lives. And continues to lead them, through their assimilation to the foreign land his father foreshadowed, and where they strive to remain true to their roots.

In the Jurbile tribe, like most of the tribes in Southern Sudan, there was no record keeping, no paper and pen, and no "apps". So when King was assigned to Group 1, Zone 1 bound for the U.S. after years of interment in a refugee camp in Kenya, he, along with the other children who were designated as "The Lost Boys and Girls of Sudan", was assigned the same date of birth January 1, 1979 by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. King does not celebrate this "birthday".

But what he and his people are preparing to celebrate is the first anniversary of Southern Sudan's separation from Northern Sudan on July 9. Last year on July 9, 2011 a referendum was passed allowing the one nation, formerly called Sudan, to divide the land theoretically in half forming 2 distinct nations. My husband and I are looking forward to sharing this day with King and his people, to dance to their tribal music, to see all their colorful vestments, and to feel their joy...

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

King Deng: The Book of Osmosis

When King and I met, he did not want to discuss his story or any of the details of his life. He said it would be too emotional for our meeting. He wanted me to read his book and ease myself into the subject matter. When the book arrived 3 weeks later, I devoured it. I was horrified at what he had been through: his family killed, his village destroyed, nearly getting eaten by hyenas, running for his life. And that was just the beginning.

I tried to stay focused. I marked up the book with underlines, dog ears and notes all over the place. I created a diagram of my superstructure--the emotional arc--that I teach to my students at the university in my writing and screenplay classes. Before I met with King again, I wanted to present him with my approach to ensure for myself I was indeed the right person to help him tell his story.

I was familiar with The Lost Boys of Sudan as many of us are but his story was different. From a young age growing up in his village he knew he would be King. He always looked at life in the context of how something would effect his people. He was not the typical child--self-focused and whimsical--but rather contemplative, looking at life through a lens of profundity. He knew deep inside from early on he was here for an important purpose.

King Deng comes from one of the most primitive cultures on our planet. They hunted for food, built shelter from branches, collected water from streams. But there was unrest all around him. Not from the neighboring tribes but from strangers that penetrated his country in search of natural resources, most notably the mother of all resources--oil. When he was kidnapped to be recruited by the militia, he knew he had to escape to save his people. And that was still just the beginning.

He wasn't the King in his mind. He was a King in his soul. His tribe members regarded him as their would-be King as a young boy and the minute their village was ransacked and they ran for their lives to ceaselessly trek through a blazing desert, in that instant, he became their leader, although he was just a boy leading other boys--and girls.

In my mind, I put myself in that desert, I put myself in the refugee camps in which he was interred, I felt the pain of him getting shot in the stomach, I felt his dehydration, I felt his will to survive to lead his people. I felt I was here to tell his story.

We scheduled our second meeting and this time I did the drive to meet him in his area. King brought with him a lovely lady from a non-profit organization that helped refugees settle in Georgia. I shared with King my vision for the film and he welled up. He said what I described was what he saw at night as he slept.

But I needed to know more. We decided to meet regularly at the mid-point between us--the Perimeter Mall food court. We would go deep. Little did I know how deep...