Judge Brendan Babish thinks God still finds his antics rather amusing.
"There is something called apartment. I've never heard, met, or seen it."
Shortly after watching God Grew Tired of Us I was telling a friend about this intriguing documentary about a group of Sudanese refugees. But before I had a chance to recommend the movie I realized that moments after the words "Sudanese refugees" left my mouth his eyes began glazing over.
I shouldn't have been surprised. For most of us there's this niggling presence—which is already reinforced by public service announcements and heart-wrenching news updates—of the enormous suffering in sub-Sahara Africa. We feel guilty for not devoting more of our time and resources to helping these people. But, as much as we sympathize, we certainly don't leap at the chance to better understand the abject horror of their situation. Let's be honest: genocide is a drag. And avoidance of it may make one shallow, but seeking out bad news can have detrimental effects on one's psyche. The photojournalist Kevin Carter was so haunted by what he had seen in war-torn Sudan, he later famously killed himself.
And so the challenge for those concerned with the Sudanese genocide has long been raising public awareness without creating such a viscerally unpleasant experience in their audience. On this score in particular, God Grew Tired of Us is a tremendous success.
The film documents the journey of three Sudanese Lost Boys—young refugees who have lost contact with their families—as they migrate from an Ethiopian camp to the United States. The three "boys" (who all seem to be in their 20s) profiled are John, Daniel, and Panther. Admittedly, the movie does begin with a harrowing 20-minute portrait of the refugee camp in Ethiopia that houses many Sudanese refugees. There are clips of starving children, many of them grotesquely malformed from their disease and malnutrition. These shots are interspersed with interviews of John, Panther, and Daniel, who all seem both emotionally fatigued and yet somehow surprisingly lively. There is an obvious bond in the camp, and the young men sing together, joke together, and somehow cope together. As essential as these scenes are, when the Lost Boys leave Africa, God Grew Tired of Us becomes a far more interesting movie.
Upon arriving in Pittsburgh, the refugees receive housing and job assistance from the U.S. government and a Christian charity; they also get a crash course on all the gadgets and processed food and other odd accoutrements of an industrialized nation. On the flight over, one of the boys eats a tiny packet of butter and remarks that it kind of tastes like soap. At the airport, each man tentatively hops onto an escalator and then nearly falls over trying to disembark. And then there is the great scene of these young men completely gobsmacked in a supermarket. The group seems particularly befuddled by a chocolate donut with sprinkles. And really, when you think about it, a chocolate donut with sprinkles is a pretty odd concoction.
These scenes are the strongest in the documentary because the refugees' reactions to what are surely simple everyday items to most viewers provide not only entertainment, but enlightenment. Who pauses in front of an escalator and thinks about what an odd contraption it really is? Who looks at donuts and realizes that they are an affront to nature? The acclimation of these boys to America has filled me with a profound new appreciation for the highly technological life I've been unthinkingly living for most of my life.
But God Grew Tired of Us is not just some sort of big city version of The Gods Must Be Crazy. The documentary flashes forward one year, and then three years, and shows us how the boys fair long after the novelty of their new country has worn off. Initially it is merely exhausting to see how much these young men must work to merely get by. They work two or three jobs and send whatever money they can spare back home to family members in Africa. Not surprisingly, one member of the group suffers a mental breakdown. However, the film does offer moments of inspiration, and as the credits roll there does seem to be reason to be optimistic.
The only real flaw of God Grew Tired of Us is that the film is too short. Ninety minutes just isn't enough time to adequately cover several pivotal years in the lives of three men. This is perhaps why John (who is, admittedly, a remarkable person) ends up receiving what seems to be an inequitable amount of screen time. Still, this is a piddling complaint, and should not dissuade anyone from seeing the film. Yeah, it's about Sudanese refugees. Yeah, it's kind of a drag. But it's entertaining, enlightening, and important. That's quite a trifecta.
This DVD also contains one of the best commentary tracks I've ever heard on a documentary. It features director Christopher Dillion Quinn and well as the three Lost Boys featured in the film. In addition to the fact that the three are all pleasant, genial men, they also provide great supplementary insight to the events depicted in the film. One of them explains his shock upon discovering that—while his countrymen are starving—American supermarkets have a whole aisle dedicated to dog and cat food. He didn't sound angry or judgmental, but after hearing this I couldn't help but wonder why so many of us coddle our pets but ignore the suffering of those of our own species.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary with director and the Lost Boys
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