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January 23, 2007

Documentary brings fresh look to Tired genre

God Grew Tired of Us has all of the hallmarks of a liberal guilt documentary. African subject matter? The Lost Boys of Sudan. Check. Celebrity narration? Nicole Kidman. Check. Celebrity producers? Brad Pitt. Catherine Keener. Dermot Mulroney. Check, check, check. All that is lacking, then, is the liberal. And the guilt.

Against the odds, God Grew Tired of Us is a warm and enjoyable documentary with little in the way of political agenda and much in the way of human compassion. It tells an extraordinarily sad story, but it does not fail to portray patches of hope and humor. To explain how that is even possible, I must provide some background.

Sudan is one of many nations that were cobbled together by a receding British Empire. The boundaries on such nations (Iraq among them) did not take into account local cultural divides. For Sudan, this meant that Arabs in the north were paired with non-Arab, predominantly Christian and animist blacks in the south. As a result, two civil wars have engulfed 38 of the last 50 years of Sudanese history. In addition to two million casualties, the wars forced millions of civilians to flee their homes. Many fled to Ethiopia and lived in refugee camps for years before more violence prompted another trek of hundreds of miles across desert to Kenya. The Lost Boys of Sudan are a small group of refugees who were offered residency in the United States. God Grew Tired of Us follows these emigrants to America and records their experiences here over the first few years.

Considering their background, we could hardly fault the subjects of this documentary for being bitter and reclusive. They are not at all. In sequences funnier than any of those in Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan, Daniel, John, and Panther experience culture shock with aplomb and good humor. For instance, they fear that electricity will be too difficult for beginners to use. Better-founded fears arise when the Boys first taste plane food and find it lacking. Keep in mind that that criticism comes from men who have walked nearly 2,000 miles without any reliable source of food. In the airline’s defense, I should note that several of the Boys eat the butter plain, but, still, that can’t account for all of their complaints.

A particularly amusing sequence includes a landlord trying to run through every aspect of American life in one session, beginning with turning on the lights (which flicker for the rest of the scene, as everyone needs a chance to test them), going on to lessons in not throwing the trash out the window, and ending with a trip to the restroom. The Boys have all sorts of interesting observations on this new lifestyle. “This is Pepsi,” one notes. “In Africa, we call it Coca-Cola.”

One rarely acknowledged criterion for a good documentary is articulate subjects. Nonfiction films seek to do more than just convey information. That much could be accomplished by a few paragraphs on the history of the Lost Boys. Documentaries serve to help us know people from across the globe. That goal is frustrated when documentary makers are unable to recognize subjects who can convey personality and life on camera. Two years back, Mad Hot Ballroom was making quite a buzz as a fun account of elementary school children in New York preparing for dance tournaments. My difficulty there was that the interesting kids did not make it very far in the competition, and we were left with inarticulate subjects for the last two reels. The point of the movie extended far beyond announcing the results of the tournament, and so an inarticulate end was fatal.

On the other hand, God Grew Tired of Us is blessed with an abundance of intelligent people who are able to humanize the plight of the Lost Boys. The filmmakers make it feel authentic and timely, which is, after all, what a documentary ought to do. Daniel, John, and Panther find security in America, with a consistent supply of food, decent housing, and gainful employment. But they also express the enormous loneliness that comes with leaving dozens of friends and family members behind. On top of that, U.S. culture feels unwelcoming to them. They note that no one talks to strangers. At a point that cannot be our culture’s proudest, merchants complain to the police about intimidating groups of Lost Boys entering their stores. The Boys are advised to stop traveling together.

This movie may well make you feel guilty. It probably should. But it will also make you feel informed. It definitely should. There is no whiff of trendiness here despite the celebrity backers. God Grew Tired of Us is a simple movie that sets out to better understand a few people in a difficult situation. It succeeds.