When civil war broke out in Sudan in the 1980s, some 25,000 boys ages three to thirteen fled the atrocities in their homeland on foot. They walked over 1,000 miles across barren desert to find refuge in Ethiopia and Kenya. Those who didn't die from starvation, wild animal attacks, and bombing raids eventually found shelter in a UN refugee camp in Kakuna, Kenya. Taking inspiration from Peter Pan's band of orphan boys who protected and provided for each other, a journalist of that day dubbed these children the Lost Boys.
In recent years, the U.S. has resettled nearly 4,000 of these young men. God Grew Tired of Us follows three of the Lost Boys—John Bul Dau, Daniel Abol Pach, and Panther Blor, chosen for relocation by the International Rescue Committee—to their new homes in Syracuse and Pittsburgh. This sounds like leaving hell for heaven, until you realize these men have never seen electricity, flushing toilets, or running water. And they're anguished to leave behind the friends who have been closer than family for 15 years. Still, with wide-eyed and wary hope, they come.
The first hints of what a different world they're entering occur on the airplane ride. The boys are fascinated by the overhead reading lights, the announcements from the captain that seem to come from nowhere, the oddly packaged food. They eat pats of butter and mustard packets as if they're part of the main course, wobble their way onto escalators in the airports, and marvel at Hasidic Jews and punk rockers in New York. The orientation to their new apartment includes the instruction that here we don't throw our trash out the window, as well as demonstrations on how to use a shower, refrigerator, toilet, and lamp. They boys watch with rapt attention ...1
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Followed over the course of four years, each of the three men reacts differently (but positively) to the excruciating pressures of adjusting to a non-agricultural society where success is measured in dollars. After a year’s initial support, each is expected to fend for himself and to pay back his airfare to the United States. That often means working three jobs a day doing things like flipping burgers at McDonald’s and busing tables in a restaurant, while sending as much money to relatives in Africa as can be squeezed out of a minimum wage.
As time passes, their loneliness and feelings of being cut off from the culture in which they were born deepen and become a palpable ache. It is expressed in a sad reflection by John on the plight of Sudan, which gives the film its title.
With the help of the International Red Cross and other agencies, John is able to locate the family he hasn’t seen or heard from in more than a decade in a Uganda refugee camp. In the most wrenching scene, his mother arrives in the United States and at the first sight of John collapses on the floor, clinging to him and emitting keening yelps of joy.
The movie shows very little social interaction between the three men and ordinary Americans, beyond the polite exchanges of foreigners struggling to communicate. Racial hostility is alluded to only once, when a group of lost boys is asked to go out in smaller numbers so as not to alarm the neighbors.
The movie’s poignant early scenes, filmed in Kenya, show a community sustained by a remarkable spirit of brotherhood. At the camp, John, who is unusually tall as well as one of the oldest, was a group leader for more than a thousand other boys. Daniel, a natural entertainer, was also a leader and formed a group called the Parliament. Both he and Panther, who returned to Africa to marry (and is currently working to bring his wife to the United States), live in Pittsburgh and attend college.
Because its ratio of joy to horror is about 60-40, “God Grew Tired of Us” is more user-friendly than its forerunner, which opened in New York three years ago, and addressed such touchy issues as the cultural gulf between Sudanese immigrants and African-Americans. If the more inspirational “God Grew Tired of Us” hovers on the edge of sentimentality, it never goes overboard. As these hard-working learners struggle for a foothold, swallowing their anxiety and loneliness, they persevere with a stoicism that is almost saintly.
“God Grew Tired of Us” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It includes harrowing images of starving children.
GOD GREW TIRED OF US
Opens today in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Christopher Quinn; narrated by Nicole Kidman; director of photography, Paul Daley; edited by Geoffrey Richman; music by Mark McAdam, Mark Nelson and Jamie Staff; produced by Molly Bradford Pace and Mr. Quinn; released by Newmarket/National Geographic Films. In Manhattan at Landmark’s Sunshine Cinema, 139-143 East Houston Street, East Village. Running time: 90 minutes.
God Grew Tired of Us
NYT Critic’s Pick
DirectorsChristopher Dillon Quinn, Tommy Walker
WriterChristopher Dillon Quinn
StarsPanther Bior, John Bul Dau, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Abol Pach
Running Time1h 29m
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Last updated: Nov 2, 2017
A listing of credits in Weekend on Friday with a film review of “God Grew Tired of Us” omitted an editor and a producer. In addition to Geoffrey Richman, Johanna Giebelhaus edited the film, and Tommy Walker was a producer, along with Molly Bradford Pace and Christopher Quinn.