February 2006

'Lost Boys' documentary touches hearts of Utahns
By Brandon Griggs, The Salt Lake Tribune, 1/28/06

James Alic Garang stood in an emptying Salt Lake City movie theater Thursday [Jan. 26] after watching God Grew Tired of Us, a Sundance Film Festival documentary about the “Lost Boys” of Sudan.

 
James Garang, now living in Salt Lake City, expresses his thoughts as one of the Sudanese “Lost Boys“ after a Sundance screening of “God Grew Tired of Us,“ a documentary on the journey of youths from Sudan. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune)

The credits had rolled and the theater lights had come up, but Garang's emotions still flickered across his face.

“This film is so real that for me it's like I'm reliving the past,” said the young man, who survived Sudan's brutal civil war and emigrated five years ago to Salt Lake City, where he's an honors student in economics at the University of Utah. “It depicts what really happened.”

Garang's friend and fellow Sudanese immigrant, Peter Kuot, had a more succinct assessment of the movie: “It made me cry.”

The two were among a half-dozen of Utah's 140 Lost Boys who saw the film at the free special screening, arranged by the Sundance Institute. Sure to be one of the most talked-about Sundance documentaries of the year, God Grew Tired of Us follows three young Sudanese men from Kenya's Kakuma refugee camp to America, where they adapt to a bewildering foreign culture and build new lives.

Director Christopher Quinn begins the film with a brief recap of Sudan's civil war, which in 1983 forced thousands of Christian boys from southern Sudan to flee the advancing Muslim army from the north. The Lost Boys, as they became known, journeyed more than 1,000 miles on foot, battling thirst, famine and wild animals, before finding refuge in Kenya.

Quinn then takes his cameras to the Kakuma camp, where in the spring of 2001 he introduces us to his three protagonists: ebullient Daniel Abol Pach; his friend, the earnest Panther Bior; and the tall, dignified John Bul Dau, whose deep concern for his fellow Sudanese drew the filmmakers to him immediately.

Peter Kuot listens to interviews with the director following a screening of “God Grew Tired of Us.“ Kuot will be traveling back to Sudan soon. (Francisco Kjolseth/The Salt Lake Tribune)

The movie tracks the three immigrants to America, where in the summer of 2001 they are resettled, with dozens of their countrymen, in new homes: Pach and Bior in Pittsburgh, Pa., and Dau in Syracuse, N.Y. The Sudanese, many of whom grew up in rural huts, gaze in childlike wonder at such exotic urban conveniences as airport escalators, flushing toilets and supermarkets groaning with fresh produce.

But while previous Lost Boys documentaries ended with this fish-out-of-water phase, Quinn kept filming. He tracked his subjects for more than three years as they juggled menial jobs, enrolled in colleges and gradually adjusted to the American way of life. He also documented their inevitable feelings of dislocation, their bouts with loneliness, their nostalgia for home and their concern over family and friends left behind.

“We determined early on that we'd be in for the long haul. It's not just about arriving in America,” Quinn said. “Once they got their footing . . . they began turning their eyes back on Africa.”

This lends Quinn's film its emotional depth. Instead of falling prey to selfishness or materialism, his three grounded, thoughtful and charismatic stars never lose sight of those less fortunate back home. All work two or three jobs to send money to friends and family in Africa. Bior plans to open a school in southern Sudan, while Dau has raised more than $90,000 to build a health clinic there.

The film ends on an emotional note as Dau locates his mother, whom he had feared dead. After 20 years apart, mother and son reunite at the Syracuse airport, the woman crying Dinka chants of celebration while collapsing to the floor with joy. Later Bior returns to Africa to fetch the woman he plans to marry.

Documentary films on such weighty topics typically struggle to get made, let alone screened in theaters. But thanks to celebrity backers, God Grew Tired of Us has solid commercial prospects. Quinn grew up in Alexandria, Va., with actor Dermot Mulroney, who is married to actress Catherine Keener. Mulroney and Keener loved the movie and brought it to Brad Pitt, who helped fund the project and became an executive producer. Keener also helped recruit Nicole Kidman to narrate the film.

God Grew Tired of Us had its Sundance premiere last Sunday [Jan. 22] in Park City, where it got a standing ovation. Pach, Bior and Dau attended the screening; afterwards, an audience member slipped Dau a check for $25,000 to help him complete his seven-room clinic. Several distributors have shown interest in buying the film, and Quinn is optimistic it will be in North American theaters later this year.

Utah's Sudanese Lost Boys—some dislike the term on the grounds that they're now neither—hope the movie gets a wide release.

“A film like this will get the word out to the American people who might not know about the Lost Boys or even where Sudan is,” said Garang, expressing dismay about the continuing civil war in his homeland, where more than 2 million have died.

“The world has been giving a deaf ear to Sudan for a long time.”

Garang and some Sudanese friends plan to return home for a visit this summer, where he will be reunited with his mother for the first time in 19 years. Despite the violence that plagues his native country, Garang remains hopeful that things will improve.

“Sudan has a terrible past, and it should not be repeated,” he said.

For more information on God Grew Tired of Us, visit www.godgrewtiredofus.com. The film won both the grand jury award and the audience prize in the documentary competition at Sundance.

Note: Last fall, a coalition of Utahns started a nonprofit called the Chier Foundation (www.chierfoundation.org) to fund education for Lost Boys in Utah. (“Chier” is the Dinka word for “North Star.”) Since its founding, the group has already funded 12 full scholarships and covered as many more students’ books and other expenses. They are also working to expand into mentoring programs for the boys. Chier is 501(c)(3) and all donations are tax-exempt.



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