It is no surprise that God Grew Tired of Us, a documentary about three of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2006
Sundance Film Festival. The movie, which opens today, accomplishes what only great films can: It teaches you about life outside of your experience and makes the familiar seem strange and alien.
In 1983, civil war broke out in Sudan, and 25,000 boys ages three to 13 lost contact with their families and were forced to walk barefoot to neighboring countries, some for as long as five years. Only half of them lived to see the refugee camps, and those that did would call the camps home for 10 years. Dubbed “The Lost Boys” by one journalist (after the orphans in Peter Pan), the group captured the sympathies of writers, filmmakers, and the United States government, which agreed to resettle a lucky few of them in America.
God Grew Tired of Us opens in a Kenyan refugee camp, right before a group of young men are to be resettled to the U.S. Although the film gives us some standard funny fish-out-of-water moments, it admirably refrains from turning the Lost Boys’ stories into a Hollywood feel-good movie, so
At the camp, we see the guys anxiously eye a billboard listing the exotic names of the cities they’ll be sent to: Syracuse, Pittsburgh, New York. Interviews reveal the massive change these men from the rural Dinka tribe are in for. “There is something called an apartment,” one man informs us. “Pennsylvania is a country?” asks another. “I only get one wife,” says another wistfully.
We laugh with the men as they travel on an airplane for the first time (and agree that airplane food stinks), learn what a refrigerator is, or see a well-stocked American supermarket for the first time. But we also hear their anxieties about the fates of those they left behind and witness how extreme their adjustment must be. In one poignant scene, one of the Lost Boys sits in his modern living room watching television footage of Dinka tribesmen performing a traditional dance.
Although I knew better, I found myself clinging to the feel-good portions of God Grew Tired of Us, because it was so painful to imagine the dark nights these men faced, alone, away from friends, country, and family. But the film was committed to showing the bad with the good of both the immigrant experience and the American experience. As the film chronicles years of the Lost Boys' adjustment, America emerges as a place of extremes. It’s the land of opportunity, filled with open and friendly people, but it is also a place where people are overworked, isolated, and sometimes xenophobic. (The Lost Boys are asked by local merchants not to travel to stores in large groups because they appear “intimidating.”)
So masterfully do the filmmakers connect you to the emotional experience of their African subjects that by the time the film ends, images of a lush Sudan feel like personal memories, and the cold, antiseptic shininess of America seems almost as alien to you as it first seemed to them. This temporary but powerful identification with immigrant experience will keep you close to your Kleenex box and have you continually questioning clichés about the American Dream. In the end, though, God Grew Tired of Us is less about national identity as it is about the ties that bind us to one another.