God Grew Tired of Us is the story of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, early victims of the ongoing civil war in the east African state that straddles the upper Nile. The Muslim Arabs in the northern part of Sudan have been intermittently at war with the Nubian Christians in the south for a century. In 1983, war broke out anew, and the Arab-controlled government instituted a genocidal campaign against the black Christians. In a policy with Old Testament overtones, Arab militias were directed to slaughter all young Christian males. Without the resources to resist, young men fled in droves. Like the children of Israel, with no place to call their own and no sanctuary on their journey, they walked and carried each other a thousand miles on bare feet, staying a time in Ethiopia and ultimately settling in northern Kenya. Footage of their arrival at the refugee camp in Kakuma will recall comparable images of the Jewish holocaust. Those who survived were reduced to naked, filthy, fly-infested skeletons.
Quinn's film begins to interact with the survivors many years later when an international relief organization arranges resettlement for some of the boys to scattered locations in the United States. They are now in their late teens and twenties, physically restored and remarkably buoyant of spirit. They have formed a fierce, supportive bond with each other and have substituted the spiritual sustenance of human community for what they lack in material comfort. Their lives are meager and restricted. Their camp has provided them no privacy and few amenities other than adequate nourishment and donated clothing. They have no running water, and they have never seen a flush toilet. One future immigrant confesses his worry about soon living in America because he doesn't know how to use electricity.
God Grew Tired of Us focuses on three captivating individuals. Panther Dior and Daniel Pach are best friends who are relocated together to Pittsburgh. They have bright smiles and amazingly optimistic personalities. John Bul Dau, a Dinka tall enough to play center in the NBA, is a contemplative man who has achieved impressive wisdom though he is only 30 and has little formal education. He lands in Syracuse, N.Y. When the Lost Boys arrive in America, they are like creatures from another planet. They speak pretty good English, but they are almost utterly ignorant of the conveniences Americans take for granted. The film allows us to laugh as the young men are shown their first kitchen appliances and their first indoor bathroom and are taught where to look for a light switch and how it works.
The U.S. government arranges three months of housing for the young men upon their arrival, but the immigrants have to take jobs to support themselves and pay back the cost of their air passage from Kenya to their new homes. So they quickly move into the workforce, taking the kind of minimum-wage jobs we might expect: waiters, factory linesmen, fast-food cashiers. In fact, Panther, Daniel and John all take second and even third jobs, and all send money back to Kakuma to help support those still living in the refugee camp there. Each, moreover, finds a way to enroll in college.
In a telling passage, these black Christian men, who have paid for the faith of their fathers through astonishing hardship and ultimate exile, experience their first American Christmas. They are baffled by Santa Claus and the decorated trees in so many windows. Without a hint of judgment in his observation, John decides that the American celebration seems like fun, but he wonders what it has to do with the birth of Jesus. In a comparably instructive moment, Panther praises the riches and seemingly boundless opportunity in America, but he can't understand why it is unacceptable to approach a stranger's house to ask for directions or other kinds of assistance.
Evaluated purely as a piece of cinema, God Grew Tired of Us has its failings. No doubt due to inadequate funding, Quinn seemingly shot too little footage. As a result, huge leaps take place in the Lost Boys' lives bridged only by Nicole Kidman's narration. In sundry places we yearn for more details than we get. But the core account of what these men endured and how they managed to survive with so little bitterness is as inspirational a story as I have heard in a long while. In countless ways, they are a model for us all.