By Matt Singer
[Photo: “God Grew Tired of Us,” National Geographic Films, 2007]
God Grew Tired of Us
When hiring someone to direct his rags-to-riches hit “The Pursuit of Happyness,” star Will Smith selected Italian Gabriele Muccino after the filmmaker suggested that to fully understand the American Dream you need to be a foreigner, a notion also explored in the new documentary “God Grew Tired of Us.” It follows three young men exiled from their home in Sudan by a brutal civil war who, after ten years spent in a refugee camp, are given the opportunity to come to the United States and earn a living. The men are largely unfamiliar with the US and its customs before they arrive; they don’t mention the American Dream and are almost certainly unfamiliar with the term. But their journey to America illustrates and in some ways deflates that ideal.
Directors Christopher Dillon Quinn and Tommy Walker meet these “lost boys” John, Panther, and Daniel at the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya. Their horrific childhoods are told through interviews (all three speak English) and a narration from Nicole Kidman. No person should have to suffer one of the hardships these boys endured, and they endured many, from losing their families and homes, to walking a thousand miles to escape persecution, to having to eat mud or drink urine when they had no food or water. Despite their personal tragedies, John, Panther, and Daniel are friendly, introspective interview subjects.
Panther and Daniel travel to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As if he hadn’t suffered enough already, John is sent to Syracuse, New York (an earlier documentary called “The Lost Boys of Sudan” followed a group of refugees who moved to Houston, TX). For the lost boys, who’ve never used electricity or a shower, their first days and weeks in America are filled with discovery and confusion, as they see and use things like escalators, light switches and hoagie rolls for the first time. Quinn and Walker balance on the razor’s edge of documenting their befuddlement and simply exploiting it for laughs; watching “God Grew Tired of Us,” it’s sometimes frustrating to see the filmmakers watch idly as one of the refugees grinds his Ritz crackers with a mortar and pestle (though, to their credit, they do explain the intricacies of an airplane bathroom instead of letting their subjects wing it).
Life in America for the lost boys is vastly better than their African existence, but far from ideal. The men need to work two or three menial jobs at once to support themselves and their friends and family back in Africa while they also study to get college degrees. It’s to the United States’ credit that it’s so accommodating to the lost boys, but their talents as educators and humanitarians could be put to far greater use than packing gaskets in a factory or as a produce clerk at a supermarket (in a bitter irony Daniel himself might not see, he travels from Kakuma, where he is chided for his cooking abilities, to Pittsburgh, where he winds up stocking tomatoes for a living). In some ways, this movie is a fulfillment of that promise.
The lost boys’ success in America varies: some begin to acclimate while others maintain a stricter sense of African tradition and culture; some are reunited with their families, others keep searching in vain. Some seem to climb the economic ladder; others do not. To a degree, that is the most frustrating part of the elusive American Dream: that opportunity does not always turn into achievement.
Their own perspective on our country and its promise remains as insightful as Muccino believed it to be. Panther and Daniel are discouraged to learn that Americans “aren’t friendly.” In Africa you could simply walk up to a stranger or enter someone’s house unannounced and strike up a conversation. That simply doesn’t exist here, and for all the possibilities life in the U.S. affords the lost boys, it also comes at a price. In Kakuma, the refugees sat under, around, and in a massive tree while holding parliament meetings and entertaining each other with stories and song. In a quiet moment during “God Grew Tired of Us,” John sits beneath a tree in Syracuse. But this time, he sits alone.
Opens in limited release January 12th (official site).
Tears of the Black Tiger
Emigrating from another part of the world is the Thai genre pastiche “Tears of the Black Tiger,” a cowboy-gangster-romance that premiered at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, then sat on a shelf for half a decade before Magnolia Pictures rescued from Miramax’s bottomless vault. This print, the press release notes, is the original, uncut version.
It’s easy to see why Miramax acquired the film: the movie is heavily on cartoonish, ironic action of the sort that would no doubt delight Quentin Tarantino fans. And it’s also easy to see why they shelved it: “Tears of the Black Tiger” is one giant (and, at times, difficult to swallow) homage to a film culture no one has ever seen. Magnolia’s press notes say the film is inspired by the work of filmmaker, Rattana Pestonji (1908-1970), “the original Thai independent film-maker. Unknown outside Thailand, he is now largely forgotten at home, where there is no tradition of repertory or archival screenings of vintage films.” Expecting an audience prereq in a national cinema virtually impossible to see even in its country of origin is not exactly a marketing slam dunk. Most of the country didn’t like Soderbergh’s 1940s Warner Brothers pastiche “The Good German.” Imagine what the reaction would have been if they had never seen the movies he was referencing.
Thai film aficionados will bring a lot more to the table than run-of-the-mill moviegoers, or even nerdier-than-the-run-of-the-mill cinephiles. I’d place myself in the latter category and call myself fairly unqualified to render a proper verdict: I enjoyed “Tears”‘s campier elements but felt my patience strain under what felt like an endless supply of ooey-gooey romantic flashbacks which are no doubt a great deal more insightful when you fully understand the culture they contain insight about. It’s like trying to read a book in a foreign language you don’t speak.
Opens in limited release January 12th (official site).
Nick Cassavetes’ follow-up to and departure from “The Notebook” premiered at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, which is where I saw it. In the intervening year, I’ve seen some three hundred other movies, so memories of the film are fuzzy at best: my most vivid recollection of it is a wild scene where Sharon Stone has a complete emotional breakdown while wearing a fat suit. If memory serves, it’s even better than it sounds.
The story is barely fictionalized version of a true crime, and the barely is important: the real criminal in the case Cassavetes recreates sued the distributor, Universal, to prevent its release until after his upcoming trial, arguing that seeing “Alpha Dog” (which paints Jesse James Hollywood, a.k.a. Emile Hirsch’s Johnny Truelove, in an unflattering light) could taint potential jurors. The case was eventually dismissed, clearing the way for this week’s release.
If Cassavetes hasn’t edited the film since I saw it, moviegoers who follow any “From the director of ‘The Notebook'” advertising will be caught off guard, not only by the dark subject matter but the complex structure, which incorporates flashes both back and forward and a quasidocumentary style that includes time-stamped scenes and interviews with the cast members in character (that’s where the befat-suited Stone scene fits in). When I saw it, tone was an issue, but there was at least one additional surprise: the impressive performance from Justin Timberlake as one of Truelove’s dim-witted accomplices. The guys brings sexy back and he can act. Amazing.
Opens in wide release January 12th (official site).