A throng of young men jostle in a large thatched pavilion, the sun glinting gold through the edges of the jagged roofline. The men are refugees, their eyes are glued to papers being stapled to a rough bulletin board, and they talk excitedly in Dinka, a language of southern Sudan.
Suddenly, a few words familiar to the American ear pop out of the din:
"High Point, North Carolina!"
Thus begins a new twist on the old American tale of the immigrant.
The men in this earnest, sometimes plodding and sometimes emotionally riveting documentary, "God Grew Tired of Us," are the Lost Boys of Sudan, burned out of their villages along the Nile in southern Sudan in 1987 by the Arab government of Sudan. Tens of thousands of children, mostly boys, somehow banded and stumbled hundreds of miles, first to Ethiopia, then back through Sudan to Kenya. Many died of thirst or hunger, or were eaten by lions or hyenas, or were strafed by Sudanese planes.
The boys who survived arrived as wraiths in the refugee camps, carrying horrific memories. One boy watched his father killed. Another talked about being 13 and in charge of burying dozens of dead children.
Thanks to the reach of globalization and digital cameras, the tale of three unlikely immigrants -- Daniel, John and Panther -- unfolds in real time, as they flee from one of the most remote and most violent corners of Africa to the strip malls and fast food of 21st century USA.
And therein lies the contradictory pleasure of this film: these boys went to hell and beyond, yet grew into men so sweet and earnest. The camera zooms in on these men as they long for their families, or friends in the camp, or as they first bump into novelties like a wall-size mirror, a flush toilet, alarm clocks, hoagie buns or Santa Claus.
The movie, narrated by Nicole Kidman, centers on the easy contrast between the refugee camp and America. The camp is rich with friends to talk and sing with and share stories. It's also dirt poor; men complain of flat abs and fantasize about fat bellies. Nothing happens in this camp, essentially a waiting room for the grave.
America, on the other hand, has endless opportunity but little time for companionship. People don't talk to each other at bus stops, or on the street.
But watching this movie is a little like being in a cocoon. There is little interaction with people. We see America through the eyes of the Lost Boys, but we don't see the Lost Boys through the eyes of America.
The unrelenting focus on the Boys, the individual Boys, leaves a lot of unanswered questions.
Politics are conspicuously absent. For a movie about Sudan, there is no mention of Darfur or foreign policy, and precious little discussion of oil or religion.
And there is this nagging question: Are these young men truly such saints?
They work two or three jobs, send money home and go to school. All the while, they fantasize of finding their families back in the bush. The movie turns excruciatingly intimate after a letter arrives for John, telling him the fate of his mother, father and six brothers and sisters.
John is an inspiring character -- thoughtful, generous and wide open with his thoughts and feelings.
The title comes from one of his musings, as he recounts how he was in put in charge of hundreds of small children during the march. Being 13, and very tall, he was deemed a leader. One responsibility was burying his 5- and 8-year-old charges when they died.
"God forgot about us," John says, "and wanted to finish us."
Such a melodramatic line would sound self-pitying from anyone else, but not John.
"Why was I born?" John asks.
It's an honest question and doesn't have an answer, but he knows he's blessed. The boy who trekked naked across the wilds of Africa, smiles.
"I am wearing clothes."
Staff writer Joseph Neff can be reached at 829-4516 or firstname.lastname@example.org