Wednesday, August 6, 2008


God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys in Sudan (2006)

This stunning documentary about a group of young Sudanese men who were par
t of the tragic Lost Boys exodus in Africa may be too intense for some kids, but may be fine for others. You’ll have to make the call. Our 11-year-old wrapped things up by asking where we could help refugees get settled here in our own state. I was busy snuffling and trying to hold in an avalanche of tears, so mumbled something like, “Oh, I’ll find out.” In truth, there is a surprisingly large community of African immigrants in the state of Maine, and finding an organization in need of volunteer services probably wouldn’t be too hard.

I’ll get on that.

I have to confess, I was touched that Keegan asked this question, and his response to the movie helped me give it a “success” rating here, even though it was touch-and-go for a while. There’s a
bit of sag in the middle (from a kid’s POV), and the beginning of the film had me holding my breath; I didn’t expect there to be such graphic telling of the horrors of the civil war in Sudan, and the brutality that has become a part of life there. There are brief film clips of starving boys and skeletal young men on the endless march to promised safety; a brief mention of rape along with other violent acts; and a general bleak feeling pervades for a short span.

Blessedly, it soon morphs into the story of three young men – John Bul Dau, Daniel Abol Pach, and Panther Bior – and their own journeys and transformation. (The philosophical and charming John Bul Dau, who was “captain” of a group of boys in his refugee camp, has become a leading light in the Sudanese community here in the U.S.) Their wide smiles and spirited hopefulness
are pure magic, even as a certain naivety threatens to pull the rug out from under them (you can almost hear relief in John’s voice as he finds New York on a map: “Oh, it is very tiny!”). Their fear and uncertainty is also palpable. Leaving the refugee camp they’ve called home for many years is difficult and frightening, but not as frightening as not leaving.

While the humorous moments are plenty (perplexed by airplane food, they eat the margarine straight from the plastic container; a flushing toilet and electricity astonishes and delights; how, they wonder, does this Santa guy figure into the birth of Christ?), the filmmakers avoid cheapening those moments by overplaying them and by contrasting them with several poignant scenes where the hard reality of life in America becomes painfully apparent. The viewer is reminded that what’s “best” for some is not always what’s “best” for everyone. The overwhelmed – and driven – young men are determined to make life here work for them, so they can send
money home and eventually reunite with their families; you literally root for them out loud. You also share their frustration with the system and government bureaucracy, with the ridiculousness of minimum wage, the alienation of American suburban living, and the high cost of food, shelter and transportation. The odds are certainly not in their favor.

Director Christopher Quinn (who co-directed with Tommy Walker) said in an interview that he’d hoped to make more than a “fish out of water” film. He certainly did; the film covers a huuge swath of the human experience in its 90 minutes, and for American-born kids who have no concept of the immigrant experience in particular, it’s quite the eye-opener and conversation starter. It also raises questions we often chose to stifle in our own minds, about things like
materialism, racism, and economic and class inequities; about our acceptance of “the American way,” which can mean working several low-paying jobs, having precious little family time, and doing without when you work so hard to try to have more.

Christopher Quinn won an International Documentary Association award for Emerging Documentary Filmmaker with this directorial debut. God Grew Tired of Us won both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Award at Sundance 20

- LINK: The John Dau Sudan Foundation is a non-profit led by Lost Boy John Dau. The Duk Lost Boys Clinic is among his many projects, and in its first year of operation served nearly 5000 people desperately in need of medical care. You can read about (and donate) to this and other projects Dau oversees by checking out his web site.

Dr. David Reed, an emergency room physician at
SUNY Upstate Medical University consults
with a patient at the Duk Lost Boys Clinic.

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