Thursday, January 18, 2007

It’s difficult not to feel a bit guilty laughing during “God Grew Tired of Us,” a movie about “lost boys” who fled southern Sudan after the second Sudanese civil war’s tsunamilike wave of violence. Experts estimate that since it began in 1983, this largely religious-based conflict has claimed 2 million lives.

But somehow, Christopher Quinn and Tommy Walker’s docudrama, which follows three of the boys from a Kenyan refugee camp to resettlement in the U.S., manages to graft a surprising and slightly unsettling amount of lightness onto the subject.

After briefly setting a historical context through solemn narration by Nicole Kidman and maps and graphics, the film jumps right into Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp in 2001, which has a population of 90,000. Of the estimated 12,000 boys living there after walking for years and thousands of miles, most have been orphaned — or, at the very least, have become separated from their families.

John Bul Dau, Panther Bior and Daniel Abul Pach are three such refugees. Likable, well-spoken community leaders, they are compelling subjects, particularly when they are among the 3,800 survivors chosen by humanitarian groups to live in America.

Yet, Mr. Quinn’s cameras do not find the three now young men living luxuriously in the land of opportunity (Pittsburgh and Syracuse, N.Y., to be exact). Instead, the refugees are struggling to adjust and reconcile their new lives with their bittersweet memories of Africa — memories that range from fun camp gatherings called “Parliament” to burying Kakuma’s dead.

First, there’s the simple matter of learning how to function in the modernized world. This, we learn, is funny. Cucumbers are edible? Toilet paper is used to clean up? Potato chips don’t need to be cooked? It’s like a real-life “The Gods Must Be Crazy,” only everything surrounding these men is as mysterious and elusive as that Coke bottle that fell from the sky.

After learning the everyday basics, the men attempt to assimilate more fully, taking on jobs, going to school and plotting their futures. But the weight of those they left behind begins to press upon them. Why them and not their friends? Are their families still alive? How will they ever be able to provide enough for themselves and those back home?

“God Grew Tired of Us” puts a human face on the Sudanese conflict (which is more than just Darfur). But the movie is more than that — and less in some ways, too.

The film, which rather perfunctorily skims the surface of the war’s atrocities through sparse graphic images and monologues, arguably shows us more about our own insular, work-centered society than Sudan’s. Mr. Quinn may leave you thinking about more than just foreign policy.

While some viewers might prefer a meatier factual background, for many (including those who honored this film with both the grand jury prize and audience award at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival), already-cooked potatoes are a lot easier to swallow.


TITLE: “God Grew Tired of Us”

RATING: PG (for thematic elements and some disturbing images)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Christopher Quinn with co-director Tommy Walker.

RUNNING TIME: 88 minutes



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