March 12, 2007

God Grew Tired of Us

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John Bul Dau, Panther Bior and Daniel Abul Pach were all no older than 13 when Sudanese government troops entered their villages and killed their families during the bloody Second Sudanese Civil War — a conflict that claimed nearly two million lives. Their only crime was their Dinka heritage, which conflicted with the central Sudanese government’s efforts to create a uniform Islamic state. Under continued threat, 25,000 boys like John, Panther and Daniel embarked on a perilous five-year march in search for safety. After years of starvation, animal attacks and strafes from the Sudanese Air Force, only a few thousand boys arrived at a Kenyan refugee camp sponsored by the U.N. All things in comparison, that prelim you have on Thursday doesn’t seem that bad now, does it?

The story of these young men, dubbed the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” is the topic of the Christopher Quinn-directed documentary God Grew Tired of Us. The film, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, gives the audience a tremendously large scope as it follows the lives of selected lost boys over a four-year period. While the strange and terrible exodus of the boys is explored in the documentary, God Grew Tired of Us really starts in the Kakuma Refugee camp as some of the Lost Boys prepare to start new lives in the United States. Aided by charity organizations and the U.S. government, these young men, now in their 20s, prepare to set out on another journey.

While Panther and Daniel are placed in Pittsburgh, John and his group settle in Syracuse. The first segment of the documentary concerns the refugee’s efforts to familiarize themselves with the society of the United States. Unfamiliar with electricity, plumbing and supermarkets, the men go through a series of Borat-esque social faux pas. While a Sudanese’s first experience with a doughnut is comical and quickly resolved, other social observations provoke a good deal of introspection from both the refugees and the audience. The men question why no one in the United States seems to care about the well being of their neighbors. They also question the priorities of a society that equates achievement not with family or personality but monetary value. The determination of the men is equally stunning. They are happy to work long shifts in factories, then run quickly to a night job at McDonald’s, only to send all their savings to the “family” of brothers still waiting in the refugee camp. The drive of the men is an effective reminder to the audience (this reviewer included) of how good we really have it — and how most of us never realize this fact.

If the film has any shortcomings it is that its scope is too broad. The film touches on many interesting themes, but alas, never fully explores one. For example, while John and Panther heroically pull themselves up by their bootstraps to success, Daniel doesn’t enjoy the same results. However, the film gives us no reason why this is the case. The documentary also mentions that one of the refugees is arrested for causing a disturbance on a Pittsburgh bus and sent to a mental institute, but then it shamelessly says nothing more on the topic. Walking out of the theater, I felt that I had only seen the first half of a film since so many topics went unresolved.

Of course, it is impossible not to like God Grew Tired of Us. The film is well orchestrated and informative. It heroically explores a topic that has shamelessly passed under the limelight for two decades. Unfortunately, the film’s pedagogical nature tends to compartmentalize the truly unique story of the Lost Boys of Sudan into a very un-unique documentary format. The fact that Al Gore is now toting an Oscar around in his eco-friendly briefcase is a testament to how far the documentary has changed since Ken Burns’s The Civil War. It’s not enough now for a documentary to “teach;” it has to “wow.” While I have to reserve my judgment on whether or not this trend is exciting or a disconcerting abandonment of the objective ideal, it is (unfortunately) safe to predict that God Grew Tired of Us will most likely end up in the course reserve video selection in Uris Library rather than as a “hot topic” of conversation around campus.