This weekend I got a chance to finally watch God Grew Tired of Us, the much-lauded documentary film about three young men from Sudan, known to the world as “The Lost Boys,” who were resettled in Pittsburgh and in Syracuse. It’s not a “great” film, but that’s only because there’s so much to this story that the filmmakers only had time to hint at (causes of the war in Sudan; the post-traumatic stresses experienced by some of the resettled refugees we aren’t following in the film; how some of the refugees encountered racism in the U.S., etc). It is, however, a very good film and I recommend it heartily.
In this movie, Pittsburgh and Syracuse are “America” to foreigners’ eyes. It’s very strange to see your hometown both through the eyes of strangers, and also selectively portrayed by a documentary filmmaker. Pittsburgh comes off as a bit of an intimidating, coldhearted metropolis that’s too busy to notice newcomers or gain anything from them. Syracuse is presented as a place of snow and gray sky, sad-looking apartment buildings, banal and half-empty shopping centers, spaghetti highways, and cozy ice skating in attractive Clinton Square at Christmastime. It’s also a place for John Dau to wonder what Santa Claus has to do with the Bible and what the meaning of a Christmas tree is. (He ponders this while we ourselves fret that our downtown is not as glitzily decorated as Quebec City’s or Montreal’s.) There’s also a very positive image of Syracuse, though, in a scene of local activists marching with Dau to promote awareness about the war in Sudan. This is a symbolic re-enactment of sorts of the Lost Boys’ march across the desert, Dau explains, and watching Syracusans marching across their own desolate landscape (right by those spaghetti highways) does give one a sense of hope — and not just for Sudan.
In local conversations about Syracuse’s economic troubles, loss of our own friends and family to out-migration for jobs, and struggle to keep our own local culture intact, there is a tendency to despair and wonder in our own way if something “has grown tired of us.” Watching this film, of course, puts all that into proper perspective. Not just because the struggles of the Lost Boys have been so much more tragic and epic than our own; but also because of the fresh perspective it gives that all people who struggle are never as alone in their essential experience as they might think.