Don’t be turned off by the grim title: “God Grew Tired of Us,” currently at Landmark E Street Cinema, is as uplifting as a movie about Sudan has any right to be. It helps that the film isn’t really about the civil war that killed millions of people and displaced millions more. Director Christopher Quinn shows some news footage of the decades-long conflict and the bands of starving children it created, but the focus is on the survivors: the so-called “Lost Boys” of Sudan.
In 1987, 27,000 young men whose villages had been attacked fled. Walking thousands of miles, the refugees ate mud, drank urine, and fended off attacks from lions and government troops. Over half of them died during the five-year journey. The 12,000 who lived ended up in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. The U.N. gave them basic education and food rations, but for ten years they were stuck there, waiting for the war to end, without any work or home.
In 2001, the UN sent 4,000 of the boys, now grown men, to the U.S. Quinn follows three of the most charismatic and eloquent of these emissaries as they adjust to their new lives: John Bul Dau, Daniel Abul Pach, and Panther Bior.
A large part of the film is devoted to the refugees’ humorous confusion over all things Western. On the airplane, they eat the butter packets (“not as good as what we were used to in Kakuma,” they conclude.) They marvel at electricity and green dish soap. More interesting is these Christians’ reaction to American Christmas. “What does this have to do with the birth of Jesus Christ? Is it in the Bible?” John asks as he sets up a small Christmas tree. “Who is this Santa?”
Not all culture shock is so comical. In Kakuma, the refugees spent all day enjoying each others’ company. In the U.S. many are working two or three jobs, and they go for weeks without seeing their own roommates. “Why is it tough like that?” Daniel wonders. After the tight-knit community of Kakuma, Americans seem cold and unfriendly. Locals call the police to say that they feel intimidated when their new neighbors travel in large groups. The subjects’ loneliness and claustrophobia in this strange new place is almost as heartbreaking as their war stories. Yet their disappointment with the American Dream is commingled with a desire to achieve it-to advance enough to provide for everyone they left behind.
The refugees are incredibly sensitive of the expectations placed on them by everyone from their friends in Kenya up to the U.N. officials. The day before John is supposed to start attending college, he gets a letter from the parents he thought died in the war. They tell him that the family is in a Ugandan refugee camp, and that his brothers and sisters need clothing and medicine. He quits school to take on another job.
As a fish-out-of-water tale, “God Grew Tired of Us” is funny without being facetious. Quinn’s empathetic direction never makes the refugees the butt of a joke. If anything, it’s Americans who come across as ignorant. “Do you have a lot more freedoms here?” a woman at a swimming pool asks Daniel. He gives a half-hearted reply; the question doesn’t speak to his experience at all. When John’s mother meets him at the airport and lets out a string of high-pitched yelps, the camera doesn’t linger on the confused faces of the Americans. Instead, it cuts to the people back in Kakuma cheering in the same way.
The personal framework, while touching, is limiting. The politics and history that have brought the Lost Boys to this point is left obscure. A more cynical movie might denigrate its subjects’ heroic struggle for happiness. But to maintain the optimistic mood, Quinn is forced to keep a narrow view. “God Grew Tired of Us” ends with the Lost Boys banding together to exhort the U.S. government to take an interest in their country’s troubles. Hopefully the people who see the film will too.