In 1987, Sudan’s raging civil war—and specifically, the northern Muslim government’s dictate that all Southern Christian young males be sterilized and/or executed—drove over 27,000 parentless “Lost Boys” to trek thousands of miles across the sub-Saharan African continent to Kenya. A horrific trail of tears in which starvation claimed more than half their numbers and dehydration robbed them of the ability to cry about it, the journey ended at the U.N. camp in Kakuma, where the refugees stayed for 10 years until, as chronicled in Christopher Quinn’s documentary God Grew Tired of Us (co-directed by Tommy Walker), a select few were given the chance to escape their lives in limbo and move to the U.S. Following the efforts of three Sudanese adults to adjust to their new American environs over a four-year period, this National Geographic-produced film (narrated by Nicole Kidman) proves a heartrending study in the anguished aftermath of war and genocide, the trying process of cultural relocation and assimilation, and the strength of the human spirit—all themes ripe for mawkish treatment but which Quinn handles with clear-eyed respect and compassion.
Relocated to Pittsburgh and Syracuse, respectively, the film’s expatriates struggle to work multiple jobs, pay for school, send money back home, and attempt to find their long-lost families, all while grappling with guilt over having been singled out for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and the burden of living up to the hopes of their compatriots. It’s a portrait of both suffering and success, and one that the director—even during potentially mocking scenes in which the men, newly arrived in America, try to understand rudimentary modern concepts like trash cans, light switches, and toilets—refuses to gussy up in overly sentimental or derisive ways, their depiction of the men’s difficulties bolstered by a sympathetic, discerning understanding of the emotional and psychological conflicts being waged within each refugee. “Everything has an end,” says refugee-turned-political advocate John Bul Dau in discussing the march from Sudan to Kenya, an ordeal that caused him, at age 13, to bury many of the 1,200-plus children placed in his charge. But despite an uplifting coda, the tragedy of God Grew Tired of Us comes from the sense, conveyed by the determined yet still haunted eyes of its admirable survivors, that the horrors of their tragic past may never be fully overcome.