Let’s start with the name of the movie. Like the title of Phil Gourevitch’s book on the Rwanda massacres, We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, it’s a clinical, maddeningly serene way to encapsulate a horror. “God grew tired of us” is how one survivor of another African atrocity, the second Sudanese civil war, chooses to explain the years he and other so-called Lost Boys of Sudan came of age wandering the desert barefoot, menaced by wild animals, soldiers and starvation. The film is similarly plain and unassuming. Neatly packaged with warm celebrity narration by Nicole Kidman, animated maps and other staples of telejournalism, it could be any other National Geographic program on the subject (and N.G. is one of the producers).
But, as in Werner Herzog’s Discovery Channel chronicle Grizzly Man, beauty, complexity and intensity emerge because filmmaker Christopher Quinn doesn’t mistake indiscretion for intimacy. That takes heart. While the three protagonists cope with their surreal afterlife as adult refugees/working stiffs in America, we hardly get a glimpse of their rage or (apparently non-existent) sex lives. God Grew Tired of Us focuses on the men’s dignity, survivor’s guilt, profound loneliness and spirituality. But the film’s politesse seems more for accessibility’s sake than the usual emasculating media jive. These are not the neutered, Give-Us-Free Africans Djimon Hounsou and Chiwetel Ejiofor are probably already stripping down to portray in a fictional Ho’wood cash-in. These are men.
Because of their bizarre histories—which have made these articulate English-speakers inexperienced with electricity, TV or toilets—they are also, in many ways, boys. Their U.S. government-subsidized three month initiation as American worker-consumers amounts to a second coming of age. Quinn’s cameramen observe their initiation with affection and curiosity, not gawking condescension. If it sounds like I’m pinning medals on the filmmakers for simply doing their job, its probably because I’m kind of a shell-shocked refugee myself—of television that rarely plays it so straight with a loaded subject like African ’fugees.
Of the over 25,000 Lost Boys, God Grew Tired of Us settles on John Bul Dau, Daniel Abol Pach and Panther Blor, who the filmmakers met in 2001 at a UN refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. Quinn’s crew was there to record the men’s purgatorial yet rather harmonious existence at the camp just before the International Rescue committee selected them to settle in the United States. The most common traits between the three men are their natural leadership abilities; an ease with assimilating new experiences, and culture shock that comes from having survived far worse; and blinding smiles. It’s the smiles, and the faces, that make God Grew Tired of Us good cinema rather than diverting TV. A simple closeup of Panther describing how much he aches to see his homeland again draws the kind of soul-searing empathy TV newsmagazine reports are often too tricked-out with sad sack piano cues and other Oprah-patented devices to inspire. Much of the film is captured in natural sunlight, with warm, full sound recording that adores the timbre and cadences of these men’s musical speaking voices.
John Bul Dau, who settled in Syracuse, NY, emerges as the film’s dramatic anchor, partly because he appears taller than the entire NBA, with a sculpted face and people skills to make Will Smith come off surly. He becomes an important organizer of Lost Boys conferences and reunions around the country. His story rounds out with a deeply affecting series of surprises. Filmed across four years, from the camps to Europe (briefly, at stops along the initial U.S.-bound flight) to various American cities, God Grew Tired of Us opens out into a mild-mannered epic.
How does America change these men? One of the most shocking revelations is how America’s daily grind and relative prosperity and the coldness of strangers carve more tension into their faces than two decades of war and starvation. “In America, time…. is money,” the mens’ African advisor tells them when introducing them to the concept of an alarm clock. Again, the filmmakers don’t poke around for a more graphic representation of this mounting despair. When a Lost Boy roommate of Daniel’s and Panther’s in Pittsburgh suffers a nervous breakdown (presumably from the strain of carrying too many traumas, upheavals and hopes in one young mind), Quinn doesn’t go tracking him down at the mental ward. Despite access to hundreds of Lost Boys around the country, he keeps focused on his three chosen subjects.
Finally, despite the title, this a very funny, humanist fish-out-water comedy, with sublime pieces of observation: the sequence where the men get a crash course in how to use an apartment; devout Christian John Bul’s introductions to Santa Claus (“What does this have to do with the birth of Christ?”) and titillating/surreal daytime TV; a trippy ice-capade at the local skating rink; an expedition to a supermarket. Even though the vast mileage and time span necessitate some fast cutting on segments that might have had more resonance if they lingered, I feel as if I have befriended these guys, and I want things to work out for them. This film left me with a heavy heart and a wide smile.
Steven Boone is a New York-based critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl Is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.