Perhaps more than any other genre, the documentary film is a case where the results are judged on the importance (real, supposed or sometimes just flavor of the moment) of the subject rather than on the actual quality of the filmmaking. Take a squint at the titles up for an Oscar this year. Notably absent was Patrick Creadon’s Wordplay, which is arguably the best-made and most entertaining documentary of the past year. It also happens to be a film about crossword puzzles—a subject that pales when put up against the war in Iraq, children being indoctrinated into religious fanaticism and global warming.
I don’t question this, and I don’t question the basis for the choices. After all, the probable winner going into the 79th Academy Awards was An Inconvenient Truth—a film that may just do the impossible by changing the world—and it indeed won. (If a movie can make Al Gore interesting, a slide-show lecture entertaining, and a computer animation of a polar bear clutching at an ice floe heartbreaking, then anything is possible.) And that brings us to Christopher Dillon Quinn’s God Grew Tired of Us, a film that follows the fates of three Sudanese refugees who are given the chance at a new life in the United States.
It’s a simple concept for a documentary, and it’s presented in a fairly straightforward manner. It begins in a refugee camp in Kenya where the names of Sudanese who have been selected to go to America have been posted (along with the information on their destinations). The film then traces the history of how the “lost boys” fled their homeland and finally made it to the camp in Kenya, filling us in on the horrific time their people have had. After this setup, the film becomes mildly comic in a culture-shock vein as we see the three young men—John, Panther and Daniel—attempt to adjust to the strangeness of a modern world they’ve previously only heard about (Panther is reasonably certain that the city he’s going to, Pittsburgh, is in a country called Pennsylvania).
Two things become immediately clear in these scenes: How strange even mundane things like an escalator would seem to someone who’s never encountered them, and how clever the filmmakers are in presenting this. The latter is one of the things that sets the film apart, because scenes of the young men coping with the strangeness around them could have quickly devolved into a bad case of the cutes. In the case of God Grew Tired of Us, this never happens. No joke is played out beyond its value and nothing is belabored. Plus, all this is used to contrast this boundless dream of America with the reality of making it in this glorious land of plenty: the low wages of unskilled jobs, the impossibility of working two jobs and getting an education, the cost of living, the constant need to send money home to family and friends etc.
There’s an undercurrent of despair to their American dream, as well as a feeling that they’re in danger of losing their cultural identity (borne out as they see other Sudanese adopt the dress and speech of black American youths). But the despair is never given into, and the film retains its hopefulness to the end. Yes, there’s a downside to it, but it’s neither an insurmountable one, nor is it entirely bleak. In an age where xenophobia is rife, God Grew Tired of Us presents the opposite side of the coin, reminding us of the bounty of our society and the principles we once held (or tried to hold) of viewing ourselves as generous people and our country as a haven for those in search of a better life. For this alone, the film is to be commended. Rated PG for thematic elements and some disturbing images.
— reviewed by Ken Hanke