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January 12, 2007

God Grew Tired of Us

Three of Sudan's "Lost Boys" reinterpret the American Dream in affecting doc

God Grew Tired of Us, Christopher Quinn's affecting new documentary, puts the American dream in perspective. Following the journeys of three Sudanese "Lost Boys," Quinn explores the notion that immigrants can find a second chance when given opportunities in a world that doesn't try to kill them, and their idea of "making it" in the States has very little to do with wealth.

The main subjects are orphans who escaped Sudan in the midst of a vicious civil war. Quinn selects the three men as a sample for this anthropological narrative: 25,000 young male refugees fled Sudan in 2001, navigated the perils of the African desert and ended up in a Kenyan refugee camp. Nimble and expert in the art of survival despite their youth, the orphans were somewhat crudely dubbed as descendants of Peter Pan's motley gang; these Lost Boys also get to fly, but no thanks to thinking happy thoughts. Rather, the UN places them on airplanes, where they begin new lives in the legendary lands of the free known as Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

Quinn establishes sympathy for the Lost Boys before setting up a single individual story arc, tapping into the humanism that eventually won 3,800 of these refugees their tickets to a new existence. The early scenes of the documentary feature excruciating footage of the exhausted and dehydrated nomads looking barely alive as they wander through sub-Saharan wastelands; once they board the planes (a first for these village dwellers) and begin their other journey, the movie takes on a softer, sweeter tone. John, Daniel and Panther, by all indications a friendly and disciplined trio, gradually adapt to American customs as they settle into a cramped, shared living arrangement provided by the government. As they grapple with the radical technology known as indoor plumbing, the movie ventures into comedic terrain, without sacrificing its ultimate seriousness of purpose. At another point during the tutorial, their UN guide teaches them to use a light switch. Several minutes later one of the boys, possibly in a state of awe, flips the switch and leaves everyone in darkness, before they get a chance to discover the freezer. "Somebody turned off the light," mutters the guide. Quinn deftly illustrates how, under the right circumstances, standard accommodations can seem utterly miraculous.

Although all three men eventually find employment, Quinn chooses to avoid much exploration of their labor experience (one of the men lands a job working at McDonald's, which must have taught him a few things about American consumerism not included in the UN handbook). In its third act, God Grew Tired of Us loses focus, returning to the broad perspective of its opening, particularly when Quinn and his subjects travel to a Lost Boys conference. It's impressive to see how many of these refugees managed to resettle in America, but a bit disheartening that the trio we have invested in eventually fade into the crowd. Fortunately, before that happens, the men provide a humble insight into the oft-neglected axiom (Unamerican?) that less is more: Refusing the luxury of silverware, the Lost Boys prefer to eat with their hands, which they claim keeps them attached to the culture of their embattled homeland. Home of the brave, indeed.



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Comments (1)

They may have faded into the crowd at the end of the film, but in their actual lives they have not faded-in at all.

John Dau, one of the "Lost Boys" in the film, has an autobiography coming out next week - God Grew Tired Of Us: A Memoir.

You can join John and help support projects in southern Sudan at his Sudan Project at Direct Change.

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