I don’t know who I am, where I am supposed to be.
— Panther Bior
Surveying the streets of Syracuse, John Bul Dal marvels at the quiet. Warned that he may encounter dangers in his new urban surroundings — “You might meet an accident or somebody who will kill you” — John is pleased by their absence. “Seven days old in America,” he smiles, “and I have never seen such a thing.”
He’s come from a world where violence and tragedy shaped his daily life for years. One of the Lost Boys of Sudan, John is one of three central figures in God Grew Tired of Us, Christopher Quinn and Tommy Walker’s documentary about this ongoing phenomenon. With war and genocide afflicting the region since 1983, the ongoing-ness is only part of what makes John and other Sudanese refugees’ sagas remarkable. The other parts include the resilience, courage, and preternatural patience of its survivors, and the sometimes baffling incompetence of well-intentioned U.S. efforts to help.
Unlike Megan Mylan and Jon Shenk’s excellent The Lost Boys of Sudan (2003), Quinn and Walker’s movie has received considerable mainstream press attention, owing in part to the high profiles of its executive producer Brad Pitt and narrator Nicole Kidman. But the story is compelling and worthy of attention even without such Access Hollywood-ish trappings.
The new film focuses on three young Dinka men as they make their way from Africa to the States. By way of detailing and contextualizing their journeys, it offers some brief background on the war that produced the Lost Boys, first identified as such in 1983 (the British division of Sudan without comprehending the factions within). Some 27,000 boys fled southern Sudan, threatened by Islamic government forces (following a directive to kill young men and boys specifically), walking 1000 miles to Ethiopia, then turned back toward a U.N. refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya.
Less than half the boys survived these journeys, and, after they spend some 10 years in the camp (developing new “families” amid poverty), in 2000, the State Department selected 3,800 young men for resettlement in the U.S., bringing them over without parents and with the expectation that they would repay the cost of their airfare. This detail seems startling, given the many troubles the “boys” — who mature into young men yet retain the label — continue to face, as many work two and three jobs to pay rent and send money back to Sudan and Kenya.
The film shows the young men’s early “orientation” process — they notice the terrible food on the airplane (“Is that cheese? I can’t tell”), the camera offers striking close-ups of their brand new white sneakers stumbling as they ascend an escalator for the first time, and in their first U.S. apartments, they receive instructions on how to use hot and cold water, alarm clocks, electric lights, and toilets, along with becoming acquainted with the odd pleasures of potato chips and donuts with colored sprinkles.
Soon after their arrival in the States, the documentary’s three subjects are split up: Daniel Abul Pach and Panther Bior are sent to Pittsburgh, and John Bul Dau to Syracuse. Before his departure for New York, John looks at a map he has tacked to his temporary bedroom wall (the extraordinary fact that he has a bedroom anywhere, as well as a bed to sleep in, is not lost on John). He points to the state on the map: “My place is here,” he says, reiterating one of the film’s central themes, the quest for a “place” that is safe or at least identifiable and somewhat stable, in concept. “I am to go to school and get a job,” he says, imagining the new, strange life that stretches before him.
Each of the men has his own story to tell, and each does so with compassion and insight, able to see past immediate obstacles and frustrations in order to keep faith in a future. Occasionally, one will recall a particular trauma. John, for instance, was put in charge of a group of some 1200 boys when he was only 13, being one of the oldest survivors in Kenya, and so had to organize the burials of children who did not survive: he recalls that time with sadness and wonder, that he emerged intact. “When I think of it back,” he says, “It was so bad anyway. You can never regret why you were born. Everything has an end.”
In Syracuse, John takes up beginnings. He takes college classes, works two jobs (one at a factory, another at McDonalds), and continues to seek information about his family. He wonders out loud at the U.S. version of Christmas, with plastic trees and flashing lights. “Is Santa also in the Bible”?” he asks, a dedicated Christian owing to his conversion in the camp. For the Kakuma version of the holiday, he recalls, “People marched in the street, to prepare for Jesus Christ to be brought into our hearts.” He turns on the Christmas tree lights, his face suggesting a mix of disbelief, bemusement, and disappointment.
Panther and Daniel, in Pittsburgh, work at a restaurant and process checks for Mellon Bank. They ride public transportation, making their way from one job to another and back home with barely time to sleep. Daniel sighs, “In the U.S., people are not friendly,” he says (given where he’s come from, this assessment speaks not only to his deep loneliness and the cultural differences between continents, but also to the stunning indifference he faces in the States). “How are we going to be acquainted with this life here?”
Such moments resonate in God Grew Tired of Us. Not quite intimate, the film can only hint at its subjects’ depths of pain and strength, inviting them to remember and observing as they grapple with the perversities of life in the States. Still, the film skips over some details that seem worth pursuing. The young men in Pittsburgh are instructed by the local police not to go shopping together, as their “large groups” are alarming merchants. While this suggests ignorance and perhaps racism on the merchants’ part, the “report” takes but a few seconds of screen time, with no visual record, just a written note on screen.
And so the young men start to speak for themselves, not only in the documentary, but also in large groups, organizing annual conventions of “Lost Boys” in order to keep track of one another and become active in policy and legal debates concerning their treatment in the U.S., not to mention efforts to stop genocide in Africa. Their stories are, again, ongoing.