“God grew tired of us. He tired of bad deeds and wanted to finish us.” These apocalyptic words of a refugee from the brutal civil war in Sudan provide the title for a new documentary, directed by Christopher Dillon Quinn and narrated by Nicole Kidman. God Grew Tired of Us chronicles the resettlement of three refugees (John, Daniel, and Panther) from Sudan, as they move first to Kenya and then to the United States. The result of Quinn’s work, which follows a different group of refugees from and for a longer period of time than the 2003 film The Lost Boys of Sudan, is a crisply edited and unadorned film, consisting mostly of interviews with the boys both before they leave for America and over a four-year period after they reach the U.S.
The film’s restraint and sobriety render it a powerful vehicle for communicating the horrors of genocide, a realistic appraisal of America as a land of second chances, and a moving depiction of the irrepressible work ethic and deep religious faith of the refugees.
There is an attempt to provide some historical background to the refugee crisis in Sudan, a place of rich soil and ample food before the civil war. Kidman’s narration traces the internal conflicts between the Arab north and Christian and animist south back to the uneasy political alignments Britain left behind when it abandoned its colonies in the 1950s. In 1987, the northern government enacted a policy to kill all male children in the south. Short of killing them, they would attempt to render them sterile by “putting holes in their testes.” Thousands fled and made their way over 1,000 miles of empty desert to Kenya, where the U.N. had established a camp.
America agreed to relocate thousands of the refugees to the U.S. A government program provides an apartment and an initial job, but the goal is for them to be working for themselves within a few months and even to repay the U.S. for air travel from Africa.
The young men have a relentless work ethic; before going to America, one of them says, “If I went to America, I would work very hard,” even “clean dogs” in order to “send money back.” One describes his work at a gasket factory as “very, very, very good” and never complains about going from that job to a second one grilling burgers at McDonald’s. Underlying their commitment to work–they leave home before dawn and arrive back late at night–is not just a hope for personal success. Each one has a sense of his “duty to the people who have hope in [him].” Not surprisingly, they also feel sorrow and some guilt for their newfound freedom and opportunity, even with all its frustrations. Commenting on family members left behind, John states, “If I get a good place, why not them?”
The geographical and cultural shift from village life to our highly technological society presents opportunities for light-hearted comedy. There are a number of funny scenes, as they attempt to negotiate an airport escalator for the first time and as they eat unidentifiable airline food (“meat, milk, cheese–I cannot tell”). When they move into their apartment in Pittsburgh, they are given instructions on the use of the light switch and are told, as their instructor points to the window, “in America we do not throw our trash out here.”
Some of the boys have been warned that America is a violent place, where fellow citizens will attack them as they walk down the street. To their relief, they find it to be much safer than that. They face some prejudice: as they shop in the supermarket, an older white male stares angrily at them, and local merchants sometimes call the police, fearful of too many of them shopping together at the same time. The deeper struggles are internal and psychological; many of the lost boys continue to be afflicted by nightmares of bombings and bloody murders.
The most difficult adjustment is to the loss of the community that defined their very existence in Africa. In coming to America, the boys suffer a double separation: from families in native Sudan and then from fellow lost boys. One of them observes, “In Africa, we were a large group. Here, we are only four; it is not enough.” The individualism of American life forces them to unlearn lessons they learned in their refugee camp, such as that “the best way when someone’s suffering is to involve yourself in his problem.”
The sense of duty to family is rooted not just in their traditional way of life in which numerous generations live together and rely on one another, but also in their Christian faith. Echoing St. Paul, they speak of individuals as having different talents or gifts in accord with which each person has a duty or a role. As Christmas approaches, one of the boys captures their rather direct, biblical faith when he states, “In Africa, Christmas is a time to prepare ourselves spiritually to receive Jesus Christ.” Without any hint of cynicism, they wonder about the point of our Christmas celebrations: Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and shopping.
The power of the faith of the refugees is clear from their undaunted hope in the face of the horrors they have witnessed. One young man describes how, because of his height, at the age of 13 he was put in charge of 1,200 young persons. His first lesson was “how to bury the dead bodies.” No wonder he was led to ponder the biblical account of the end of time. It seemed to be the “last day, as people say in the bible,” when “Jesus will come and the “earth will be judged.” Without heavy moralizing or inordinate attention to violence, the film, which ends with an emotional scene of reunion, moves the hearts and minds of viewers to make judgments about genocide, about America, and about religious faith.
– Thomas Hibbs, an NRO contributor, is author of Shows About Nothing.