They are the Lost Boys of Sudan, approximately 27,000 Sudanese who fled their country's civil war in 1983. After trekking more than 1,000 miles in bare feet for five torturous years, 12,000 survived to start a makeshift society at a U.N. refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. Some live in the camp to this day, a meager, hopeless purgatory tantamount to “waiting for your grave.” Others, like John Bul Dau, Panther Bior and Daniel Abul Pach, are chosen to come to America and start a new life.
Christopher Quinn's Sundance award-winner God Grew Tired of Us is the story of John, Panther and Daniel and the enormous cultural challenge they face with dignity and good will. From the moment they board the plane to leave Africa, we realize they'll need uncommon perseverance to survive in America. In their economy class seats, they swallow an entire pat of butter and suck down a packet of salad dressing. They know nothing about the most insignificant modern conveniences.
Panther and Daniel are sent to Pennsylvania, while John goes to New York, two of the 23 states that currently sponsor Lost Boys. Upon arrival, they're given three months of federal assistance, after which they must work and repay the government for the plane flight to America. The jobs they land are menial and some work multiple jobs, including as a burger flipper at McDonalds.
In the film's most remarkable scene, Panther and Daniel are shown their Pittsburgh apartment. Before coming to America, they didn't know the meaning of the word “apartment,” nor were they familiar with the concept of a shower. (“How does it look like?” one of them asks.) In their new American home, they are taught how to flip a switch, how to use a toilet and sternly advised that “we don't throw (garbage) out the window,” we use a trashcan. Their naivete is ripe for cross-cultural laughs, but comedy is not the goal nor the effect. These kids are proud and resilient, but they're lost in every sense of the word. And as the machinery of capitalism caters to their least survival-oriented whim, they're perplexed by our lack of social niceties. Daniel, for instance, doesn't understand why a person in need can't just knock on a neighbor's door and ask for help. And he makes us wonder what's more important, the latest techno-gadget or knowing, and being able to depend on, your neighbor.
Director Christopher Quinn spent more than four years chronicling the boys, dedication that sometimes works to the film's disadvantage. By necessity, Quinn and ace editor Geoffrey Richman must prune their story down to broad strokes in order to condense four years into 86 minutes, and there are times when a micro approach would have given us a more visceral sense of how difficult it was to enter the American bloodstream. Indeed, Quinn only hints at how the boys are treated by the locals, denying the viewer a window into our culture that may not have been very flattering. The film, narrated by Nicole Kidman, sports some high-octane celebrity producers, including Brad Pitt. Such star wattage threatens to give the project a sour, cause du jour aftertaste, but that shouldn't take away from the estimable accomplishments of Quinn and his team.
What's notable about these brave young men is that, no matter how far their former life recedes into memory, their desire to bring loved ones to America never fades. By film's end, John has a tearful reunion with his mother, who walks around the airport shrieking Dinka chants as a sign of unbridled joy. As John would proudly declare, “America is okay.” Sometimes, despite the problems we start and the problems we refuse to stop, America really is okay. And often, it's much more.
Cast: John Bul Dau, Panther Bior and Daniel Abul Pach
Director/Screenwriter: Christopher Quinn
Producers: Molly Bradford Pace, Christopher Quinn and Tommy Walker
Running time: 86 min.
Release date: January 12, 2007