“This is, in my country, we call it Coca-Cola.”
How often do critics and audiences agree on something? I think we can all admit it’s somewhat rare. So when I heard that documentary, “God Grew Tired of Us”, had managed to win both the Audience Prize and the Grand Jury Prize at last year’s Sundance festival, I was certainly intrigued. However, when I finally caught the trailer, skepticism settled in. The film appeared to be some sort of social experiment where young, African men were transplanted into America with an array of comedic mishaps to follow. What could be funnier than watching the unexposed baffled over how to use an escalator? Still, I was not deterred. I would see with my own eyes what movie had managed to appease the masses and the minutiae-oriented. Proving once again that you cannot judge a movie by its proverbial cover, “God Grew Tired of Us” is a unique and rare experience that burrows its way into your mind and soul, forcing you to see your world and the world outside your world through the eyes of a wide-eyed stranger.
In 1983, the second Sudanese Civil war began. Over 27,000 young boys and girls (many more boys than girls as girls were often snatched up by attackers to be raped and/or turned into slaves first) fled their villages and journeyed to refugee relief camps in bordering countries, Ethiopia and Kenya. The treks lasted a few years and only 12,000 managed to reach their destinations. These camps became their new homes, in some cases for fifteen years. In 2001, an aid program was put in place to bring 3800 young men over to the United States. The program was called The Lost Boys of Sudan. It was at this point that filmmakers Christopher Dillon Quinn and Tommy Walker made their way to the refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya. They would follow three lost boys as they traveled across the Atlantic Ocean to begin their new life. Using archival footage to demonstrate the horrendous experience endured by these young men in their boyhood, Quinn ensures that his audience understands where these men came from and what family and community means to them before he shows their worlds being turned upside down.
Though the Lost Boys’ coming face to face with electricity and the subtle differences between turning a light on at the source or by using the wall switch can be comedic, their introduction to Western society is more telling of the natives than anything else. Coming from a past that at one point included eating mud as a source of water while in the desert, must make the concept of testing the water coming from your shower head until it is just right before stepping underneath it seem downright extravagant. Excessive is a Western way of life for those who can afford it. Even those who can’t live above their means to appear that they can. When the Lost Boys walk down the aisles of a large chain grocery store, awe beams from their eyes. The point is only further proven when they are offered a taste of a sugar doughnut smothered in sprinkles. They each take tiny bites as if unsure of what form of ridiculousness they’re biting into. Everyone around them walks up and down the grocery store aisles as if they do it every day and think nothing of it. I would be doing the same and “God Grew Tired of Us”, without being accusatory or judgmental, draws your attention to how much you take for granted on a daily basis. It’ll get you thinking about your supposed needs the next time you bite into a doughnut of your own.
What gives “God Grew Tired of Us” its deeper, more substantial meaning is the decision to not just expose the culture shock the Lost Boys endure as if they were guinea pigs put on screen for our privileged perspectives to devour. The film goes further when it follows the Lost Boys as they cement their lives in the United States over a period of three years. The illusion wears off when you have to work three jobs to afford your basic needs while sending money to your family back in Africa that you haven’t seen in over fifteen years. America the beautiful quickly becomes a very lonely place that feels very far from home. Despite having opportunity and an abundance of everything, the Lost Boys still miss the Sudan. “God Grew Tired of Us” is respectful of both its subjects and its audience, always sure never to demean one for the sake of the other. Maybe this is why it has captured the attention of critics and audiences alike; its humbling, thought-provoking nature levels the distance between the two, where each group feels better than the other, allowing each to see that they are no different from each other when faced with the bigger picture of humanity and its arduous journey towards global compassion.
Review by Joseph Bélanger