Sunday, December 5, 2010

God Grew Tired of Us

God Grew Tired of Us is a truly unique film: a tale of then, and now, pain and promise, joy and longing. It is the true story of people in a distant land who, despite living a life devoid of what we in the U.S. would call the most basic of necessities, lived a good—even joyous life, only to have that life destroyed by civil war, and resurrected in a totally different and often perplexing form.

Sparsely narrated by Nicole Kidman, and directed by Christopher Quinn, God Grew Tired of Us begins in Southern Sudan, where, prior to 1983, a group known as the Dinkas enjoyed a primitive, yet exceedingly rewarding life, farming and tending their cattle over a rich, lush landscape. They bathed in the Nile, grew what they ate, and developed a strong sense of family and community.

This some-would-say idyllic life came to an abrupt end during the second Sudanese civil war between the Muslim north and the black Christian and animist south. In–as they say, 'the blink of an eye', Northern government troops raided the Dinkas’ villages, raping their women, murdering their men, sexually mutilating their male youth, and taking those who remained as slaves. Children were herded into huts and burned alive Animals were slaughtered or left to die.

The only villagers to survive the attack – the so-called "lucky ones"– were the youngsters (mostly boys between the ages of 3 and 11) who were tending cattle in the forest during the rampage. Escaping into the African jingle and across the desert, 27,000 of them traveled more than one thousand miles on foot, in search of a safe haven.

Many would not make it, succumbing to thirst, hunger, pestilence, animal attacks and bombing raids. After a three-year stay in Panyidu at a UN and church-charity-sponsored camp on the Ethiopian border, they were forced to flee when the fighting grew closer. Backtracking through the Sudan, they headed toward Kenya, arriving at a camp in Kakuma in 1992, and what they hoped would be a temporary sanctuary.

Using an indelible collection of archival and more recent footage, God Grew Tired of Us takes us from those earliest of days through 2002, when the first group of refuges were relocated in American cities around the country. We see what they loved and lost, follow them across the desert to that end-of-the road camp where they would languish for more than ten years, and watch as several of the young men make the mind-bending transition to life in these United States.

The jump from archival to then-current film begins in Kakuma, shortly before the chosen few had to say their good-byes. We get a sense of how hard it was for them to leave, as great expectations mixed and mingled with fear of the unknown, guilt at leaving this extended family, and worry that they would never be able to return to their native land.

The bulk of the film focuses on three of the refugees (John Bul Dau, Panther Bior and Daniel Abul Pach) as they settle into life in America. Their feelings are intense. Confused, awestruck, frightened and hopeful, they are barraged with all manner of first-time experiences, having never turned on a light, slept in a bed, set an alarm clock, seen a refrigerator, used a toilet, come upon a trash can, taken a shower, worn shoes, or stepped inside a supermarket. The only thing I can equate it to would be if somehow I was plucked from my easy chair and set down on Mars, with only the barest notion of how to survive.

"I hear there is something called an ‘apartment’" says one boy, shortly before they leave Kakuma. "What does it look like?" asks another. "I’ve never used electricity" says a third, adding,"so I imagine that it will be very hard for me to do that."

Still, they press on, willing to do whatever it takes, be it "digging latrines, cleaning dog’s teeth" or "singing songs to old people so that they’ll fall asleep" in order to make enough money to improve their lot in life, as well as the lives of those they left behind.

And so we watch them as they make their way, marveling at our cultural differences – ("In U.S. there is only one wife" notes one of the boys, "These things are going to affect us"), while trying to make sense our seeming indifference to those in need.

Their reactions and moods―a mixture of gratitude and guilt― are at the heart of this beautifully crafted film. Inspiring on so many levels, it is a tribute to a people who despite all that has befallen them, remain inherently happy, loyal, loving and true to their heritage.

It is amazing that in this day and age, when news is instantaneously transmitted through all manner of technology that their plight was not recognized sooner, and aid did not come quicker. When, in 2001, help did arrive, some 3,800 boys were relocated in Pittsburgh, Syracuse, New York and Omaha, and thirty-four other U.S. cities.

Discontinued after 9/11 for security reasons, the program that brought Daniel, John and Panther to America was eventually re-instituted in 2004, shortly before the end of the second civil war. But their mission is far from over, as, by some counts, 17,000 young people have yet to be relocated.

Some choose to remain. Nearly all hold on to the hope that they will find lost family members alive and well, and that one day they will be able to return to their villages. Since the film was produced, programs have been established to help them search for their families, retain their culture, get an education and make their way into the workforce. But it is slow going.

God Grew Tired of Us is a remarkable documentary—a mixture of heartbreak and joy, wonder and wisdom, success and failure. I hope you will step out of your comfort zone and seek it out. It is everything a documentary should be, and more.

As with all of the films and TV shows I write about in this blog, God Grew Tired of US is available through Netflix.

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