One of the most rewarding experiences a person can ever have is to learn something they knew nothing about just moments ago. The feeling of discovering and feeling like you’re improving yourself by gaining knowledge or skills is unmatched. A sign of a good documentary is that it delivers new knowledge to your audience, piquing their interest in topics they had no idea they’d be interested in, and making them somewhat knowledgeable about the subject. When a documentary manages to do those things, it becomes memorable and loved. That’s why the best documentaries are often made around some very obscure subjects. The King of North Sudan is one of those subjects, but does it manage to engage its audience, or is it better if this story remains in the dark?
The King of North Sudan is directed by Danny Abel, and it tells the story of Jeremiah Heaton, an earnest and genuine person who, while looking to give his daughter the actual title of a princess; claims a patch of uncontested land between Egypt and Sudan and calls it the Kingdom of North Sudan. What follows is a story that has everything in it. From corruption, to movie deals, social media, social commentary and more.
When the documentary introduces Jeremiah, it does so with a hint of satire. This is a man that believes he can do anything he puts his mind into. It might even come to a situation where his wife, children, and friends doubt him, but this Jeremiah Heaton will keep going. He will strive for that American dream, and he will get it. Even in his most delusional moments, the hint of satire, the hint that we should be laughing at this man, never becomes bitter. On the contrary, it serves to introduce a character that could be more common in fiction than in real life. That of a true dreamer.
Jeremiah’s journey from his farm in Virginia, USA, to the Middle East and then to China is incredible. There are so many moving pieces that it is sometimes overwhelming. When even Disney Pictures gets involved by trying to make a movie surrounding Jeremiah’s claiming of this patch of land in Africa, you know that this is going to be wild.
It is wild. Every step of the way, the documentary throws a new development at the audience. Of course, some of these points are going to be more compelling than others, but all of them are equally outrageous. The section about China is maybe the most compelling, as it reveals Jeremiah as a bit of a jerk when facing even bigger jerks in what is a series of dreadful business meetings.
While the story is quite compelling, the documentary has a lot of faults and hurts the story somehow. One of the main faults is that it might be longer than it needs to be. There is a lot happening, for sure, but at some point in the second half, the rhythm stops. And the story meanders a bit through some scenarios, and even if the documentary has already made its point, these sections continue and become reiterative.
Maybe a shorter 60-minute documentary would have been so much more impactful and exciting than the longer 90-minute version we are seeing in this release.
The fantastic story is also betrayed by a very boring visual presentation. Documentaries seem to be stuck using a formula for their visuals and delivery of information that has been used the same way for decades now. It felt dated 10 years ago and still feels dated now. The documentary uses the same interview and staged for the camera moments in each scene. It never tries to do anything interesting on a visual level. This last part comes off as baffling, not only for this documentary, but also for so many others out there.
The interesting and dynamic visual design comes from the creative side of things, and even if all these documentaries have the low-budget label attached to them. It is only right that some try to make the jump into making the genre more engaging to the eye, and not only to the ears.
Taking these faults into account, while presenting a fascinating story, The King of North Sudan might not grab everyone the same way. Especially with how contentious the main character is in the movie. Someone that can be seen as an inspiration, the true embodiment of what the American Dream is, dream big or go home. And also, he can be read as a privileged white man who is completely out of touch with the world that surrounds him. Someone who is only able to get away with these kinds of antics because of his sex and the color of his skin.
Whatever the way audiences read the character, the story remains interesting, even at the expense of his boring visual presentation, and deserves a watch, even if it is just to kill the curiosity.