Good Night, Black Cow
I recently watched an incredible documentary entitled God Grew Tired of Us,
that raised a lot of questions for me. It follows three Lost Boys, from
The Republic of the Sudan, selected to live in America for an extended
period of time. We watch as they encounter, for the first time,
electricity, running water, trash cans, the small packets of butter you
get with your meal on a plane, and pretty much anything else you can
At first, I hesitated to watch it, because I didn’t want to watch a spectacle. It’s sometimes too easy to make films like this in a way that portrays a segment of humanity, different from “us”, in such a manner that focuses only upon our differences instead of objectively relating their experiences as human beings. The result is the widening of a sense of separation between “us and them”, rather than acknowledging our commonality. Even worse is when these films portray these people as mere novelty. I am happy to report, my concerns were misplaced.
Part of why this film is so good is its balance of empathy + interest in “The Boys’" experience. The first 20 minutes cover their journey from Sudan to a refugee camp in Kenya; aptly named Kakuma (Swahili for “nowhere”). The journey takes them 5 years, with many of their family + friends dying along the way. You do get more of a complete picture of their trek in the documentary, The Lost Boys of Sudan, but that’s to be expected. We’re then introduced both to the three men we will follow, and to their world in Kakuma. After some interviews with the men chosen to go to America (seemingly by lottery), we hear one of them ask “Do people in America go down to the river and get their own water?”, to which the interviewer brilliantly replies, “Huh?” And while humorous, I still didn’t want to laugh. The film had thoroughly drawn me in, but I was still wary of any cutesy snippets which might be used to incite laughter AT these people.
They board the plane to America. The film brilliantly captures their expressions which reveal the cascade of emotions. They experience elation, excitement, hope, all of which quickly give way to worry + anxiety. We probably think “Oh, how GREAT!” that they get to go to America (and it is indeed incredible), but it is all too easy to forget their point of view. Soon enough we experience their palpable discomfort arising from their displacement from both home and loved ones.
Next, via some
wonderful interviews, we experience fascinating glimpses into their
daily life and work. We also see how much they are “fish out of water”
through some nice cracks about Pepsi as well as their fascination with
the trash can + frozen hot dogs. It is immediately apparent that maybe
the film makers didn’t anticipate these fundamental cultural
differences. Nearly all of The Boys experience homesickness within the
first few months. They even crush Ritz crackers with a hammer and mix
them with milk so as to emulate the food back home. While they are
grateful for this experience, their homesickness is undeniable. An
interview with one of the men, John Dau, is particularly heartbreaking.
John tells the story of his journey from Sudan to Kenya, and how the community used his height (which may, in fact, surpass 7 feet) as a reason to place so much responsibility on him. Along the road, he buried the children who died, and was responsible for feeding + looking after some 1,500 people. It is in this recounting that we understand the relevance of the film’s title; it is how he feels God views the people of Sudan. And while part of his desire to visit America is so he can send money back to the people he left behind, we see the immense pressure, from the community back in Africa, for him to monetarily provide for them. After some time lapses in the documentary, his expression is one that I have seen on countless people here in the US, but one that I hadn’t see on him until now. It is best described as that feeling of, “you can’t keep up”. Their introduction to material things, unlike back home, takes a slight toll. They receive about 35 phone calls a day asking for money, all the while working two, or even three, jobs. They send money home daily. They also save money so that they might build schools + hospitals in Sudan (which 2 of the 3 have done). However, it sometimes doesn’t seem like enough.
One of the more amazing aspects of the film is the visceral sense of community among the Lost Boys (and many African tribes). It is something misunderstood by the people they encounter here. In one encounter, a manager of a 7-Eleven calls the police on the men, suspicious of them always showing up together to buy groceries. Soon, they start to feel more and more isolated, which is difficult to watch. Your excitement for them at the beginning of the film has now turned into, at best, mixed feelings for their “American experience”. This experience wasn’t just about providing these men incredible opportunity, it was also about a journey that enabled them to find a greater sense of self or “who they are.”
won’t tell you how it ends, because it is worth the surprise +
definitely worth watching. Suffice it to say that the God Crew does a
wonderful job of objectively exploring a unique, and very personal,
journey without preaching or condescending. Some of the questions it
raised for me were:
• Is it easier to empathize with people who are suffering in more extreme situations than those suffering in our own country? Sometimes, it certainly seems this way. Maybe it’s sheer distance or the vivid and extreme nature of their situation.
• How do different people react to the knowledge that they haven’t, and may never, experienced a difficult life like what The Lost Boys, and other tribes, have experienced? I think reactions often tend toward the extreme. Either you’re a shit-heel for having a toilet that flushes, or you can’t be a saint unless you “sell all that you have and give it to the poor”. Isn’t there a middle ground? Of course there is. Each of us just needs to find it.
• How can we view human beings, so starkly less fortunate then ourselves, not with pity, but with empathy? I am so weary of people saying “people are starving in Africa” to get you to eat your peas. There are enormous problems in Africa, this is true, but, lumping of them into a cliché only results in snap, and often incorrect, judgments about other human beings and that really bothers me.
I know our feelings about these issues are similar. I find it fascinating to see how my fellow Americans deal with having what they have, knowing the majority of the world is not nearly as fortunate. I originally felt guilty even watching the documentary because I didn’t want to be one of the people who lump together others, whose lives are wildly different than mine, into the category: “People I Will Never Relate To, But Pity”. That could take me off into an entirely new post about the difference between pity + empathy, but I digress.
Many of us want to understand + help; maybe even most. Our intentions are good, and the intentions of filmmakers who want to capture it are good. It is a tricky subject; one loaded with many emotions + misunderstandings that can lead to judgments of people who either help or don’t help. This is especially true in judgments of celebrities what with image being such a huge thing these days. But it is counterproductive to personal growth + growth as a society to judge others. I could keep writing about this for a long time, but I just don’t think I’m articulate enough, not to mention concise enough in my ramblings, to think that is a good idea.
My basic thought is this: I hope we continue to put our lives into perspective, help our fellow human beings, both in and outside our “backyards”. Let us also work to genuinely understand the many different experiences of others, all the while not falling into the “Pity Trap”. Let us consider others with a sense of compassion and equality. We should not be too quick to judge others, for we likely do not know who they are, where they come from, or what they might become..