“There is a saying in America—time is money,” advises a Pittsburgh guide. A week earlier, that was unfathomable to the four young Sudanese men depicted in God Grew Tired of Us. At their jobless refugee camp in Kenya, they and the 12,000 other surviving Lost Boys rarely had enough pocket change for penny candy, but an unending number of hours to stare at the barbed wire fence separating them from their families and homeland.
Their country has a long pattern of isolation. In 1924, the occupied British made it illegal for Northern Sudanese—primarily Arab Muslims—and the black and Christian Southern Sudanese to enter each other’s territory. Ostensibly, the Brits were trying to protect tribesmen against kidnapping, slavery, and the spread of malaria. But instead, they reinforced racial divisions that exploded in 1955 and caused 39 of the next 50 years of Sudanese history to be marred by civil war and bloodshed. (Their latest peace accord was signed in January 2005, though the tabloids this week have poked fun at Brad Pitt—one of 11 star producers of this doc—for mistakenly believing it was still on. Technically, they’re both wrong, as Sudan’s government has shifted the violence into Darfur.)
In the late ‘80s, says Christopher Dillon Quinn and Tommy Walker’s five-year documentary (narrated by Nicole Kidman), the Northerners legalized the murder of Southern boys (girls were kidnapped). Toddlers to teens, these male children were forced to run away during raids for safety, the majority never again seeing their families. For months, 27,000 of them marched through the desert to Ethiopia. Many were attacked by lions, diseases, and bombs. They were so thirsty they drank mud, and at night they didn’t have the tears to cry.
The eldest boys led them through the Sahara. At 13, John Dau oversaw over a thousand younger boys and had to bury them when his efforts failed. Three years later, Ethiopia was overthrown and the boy retraced their steps through the wilderness. Only half made it alive to Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. And now a decade later, Quinn and Walker’s camera watches as they crowd around a bulletin board like giddy cheerleaders during tryouts to see who is leaving for America. “North Carolina,” “New York,” “Pittsburgh.” The places are exotic and wholly foreign. They have electricity, which Daniel Abul Pach worries will be hard to learn, and they look so small and colorful on the laminate map posted on the wall of the hut.
We’re allowed to giggle as John, Daniel, Panther, and their friends explore their new homes in this smart and patient Sundance award-winner (Grand Jury and Audience Award—take that, Hustle and Flow). Their flight is the first long-distance trek not made on foot, and after they eat the curious packets of butter and mayonnaise alone, the boys worry that the abroad food won’t be as tasty as a good bowl of back-home meal. Escalators, Orthodox Jews, donuts, bikini body infomercials, potato chips, light switches. John, Daniel and Panther’s eyes glaze over. And the opulence—this small room with two beds sleeps two, not four. And rumor has it that people in America are so rich that they have others do their chores. The boys are one Fancy Feast commercial short of mental overload.
But they’re here to work. Not only out of guilt to help the others left behind in the camps, whose 28 phone messages a day begging for money pushes one boy to a mental breakdown. Uncle Sam demands repayment for their $900 travel costs (hey, those tequila shots for Halliburton execs don’t pay for themselves), so, like modern-day indentured servants, they scrap their plans of schooling and sign up for ‘round-the-clock minimum wage shifts at gasket factories and McDonald’s. Only what Quinn and Walker allow the boys to make clear is that they refuse to consider themselves victims. They’re self-described ambassadors who have put the future of their friends and countrymen and missing relatives on their shoulders.
And what this documentary captures is the loneliness of that goal; their noble sacrifices would leave Mother Teresa feeling like a slacker. The America they explore goes one step beyond Borat’s to exotic ennui, as their local guides get bored with enthusiastically introducing them to the grocery store produce department and shuffle back to homes, leaving the boys to fend for themselves. But by the end of Quinn and Walker’s project, Daniel is in his Whole Foods uniform introducing suburban women to the guava, while John is touring the states introducing students to Sudan—a country that we think of as hell, but from his childhood memories, he still considers paradise.