Beyond the Multiplex

A moving documentary about Sudan's "lost boys" that everyone should see. Plus: Unraveling the mysterious disappearance of a 13-year-old Japanese girl.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published January 11, 2007 1:00PM (EST)

Over the last few weeks I've aired a lot of glum Chicken Little complaints, many of them my own, about how tough it is to get American moviegoers to pay attention to "specialty titles," as arty independent films are sometimes euphemistically called. (Commercially challenged? Differently marketplaced?) But hey, guess what? There's joy in Mudville after all, and it might be time to recognize that the water in that glass is at least a teeny bit higher than half-full.

Can't get the stupid Yanks to watch subtitles unless kung fu is involved, right? Not so fast, Bucky. Two of the probable nominees for the best foreign-language film Oscars are flat-out hits. Sony Classics has been pushing Pedro Almodóvar's "Volver" out across the country in gradual increments, building on good reviews and word of mouth. It's now playing in 109 theaters and has grossed about $6 million, with plenty more to come after possible Academy nods for the film itself and star Penélope Cruz.

The upside is even higher for "Pan's Labyrinth," the rave-reviewed fairy tale from Mexican writer-director Guillermo del Toro that's thrilling art-film fans and fantasy geeks alike. It's rolled up $1.8 million in just two weeks in major cities, with a massive expansion to come: This weekend it will reach 190 theaters all over the East Coast and Southwest, and by Jan. 19 it should be playing on 500 screens in every region of the country. That's an ambitious plan for a subtitled picture set in rural Spain in the 1940s, but if it works we could be talking about the biggest foreign-language film since "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Zhang Yimou's decadent Shakespearean drama of T'ang Dynasty China, "Curse of the Golden Flower," is also playing strongly ($2.2 million in three weeks) and, at the other end of the spectrum, Jean-Pierre Melville's rediscovered 1969 French Resistance drama, "Army of Shadows," has built up an impressive $680,000, despite never playing in more than a handful of theaters simultaneously. Still to come is "The Lives of Others," the much-anticipated thriller about the Cold War-era East German secret police that's another plausible Oscar nominee.

Not everything clicks, of course. Emmanuelle Bercot's lurid French celebrity thriller "Backstage," which I greatly enjoyed, was dead on arrival with audiences, and so was Roberto Benigni's Iraq war comedy "The Tiger and the Snow" (a self-indulgent mess). Among indies in our native tongue, "Notes on a Scandal" and "The Painted Veil" will run long into 2007, and "The Queen" is already one of the year's most noteworthy successes. But Karen Moncrieff's brooding anthology film "The Dead Girl" is sinking without a trace (despite an outstanding cast and some award nominations), and Jeff Lipsky's outstanding relationship drama "Flannel Pajamas" found no audience outside New York.

Maybe I'm just suffering from a post-holiday endorphin rush, but after a strong end to the year, the spring season ahead looks even better. I've already seen two movies likely to contend for my best-of-'07 list, and next week I'll preview a strong and varied Sundance lineup that looks loaded with mysteries and potential surprises. Neither of the two films I'm talking about opens this week, so I just have to tease you. They're both in black-and-white and in foreign languages, but beyond that couldn't be more different. One is Alfredo Lattuada's little-known 1962 "Mafioso," a delightfully cynical madcap comedy about a Fiat factory foreman who becomes a Mafia hit man. The other is Philippe Garrel's 2005 "Regular Lovers," a dreamy, moody masterpiece about the alienated would-be revolutionaries of 1968 Paris.

In this last quiet week before Sundance, we've got two powerful and strikingly similar documentaries that were big hits in Park City last year. One follows a small group of Sudan's now-legendary "lost boys" as they try to adjust to an almost surreal new life in America; the other explores an even more bizarre story, about ordinary Japanese people kidnapped and spirited away from their families by North Korean spies. In both movies, long-dreamed-of reunions occur, and in both some secrets remain veiled and many questions remain unanswered.

"God Grew Tired of Us": From the refugee camp to the supermarket
"Does Santa appear in the Bible?" wonders a recent Sudanese refugee, confronting the bewildering spectacle of Christmas shopping at a mall in Syracuse, N.Y. He knows what Christmas is; it was celebrated with rituals and dancing every December in the Kenyan relief camp where he has lived for the previous 10 years. But what is the connection, he wonders, between this fat man in a red suit and the birth of Jesus Christ?

For American viewers, moments like those may be the most pungent in Christopher Quinn and Tommy Walker's documentary "God Grew Tired of Us," which follows a small group of Sudan's "lost boys" into their new American lives. The young men in the film have never operated an electrical appliance or a water faucet, never been inside a building of more than one story. On their first plane voyage, they clownishly stumble on and off escalators, eat the margarine and salad dressing out of their little plastic pouches, wander through the vast corridors of airports in Nairobi, Brussels and New York in single-file amazement.

But the comedy of their journey from one world to another is not cruel. Instead it is wrenching, pathetic and noble, and along the way the three men at the heart of "God Grew Tired of Us" come to stand for more than themselves. Like all of humanity, they have come out of a pre-industrial age and into a postmodern one rapidly. For most of us in the West, the process began with the birth of our grandparents or even great-grandparents. The lost boys made the journey in two days instead of 100 years or more, but their dislocation in the world of swimming pools, supermarkets and Santa Claus is nonetheless familiar to us.

Why is it, as one of them wonders aloud, that using Palmolive dishwashing liquid does not turn everything in your kitchen green? Why is it green at all? During a tour of an enormous Pennsylvania grocery store, they commit the phrase "hoagie rolls" to memory as an important element of American culture. One man peers dubiously at a mountainous pile of waxy, green cucumbers and inquires, "Is this edible?" Another comes to understand that Americans prefer potatoes that have been cooked, sliced into fine slivers, heavily salted and stored in a colorful plastic bag.

So much history and geography is covered in "God Grew Tired of Us," and the human story it conveys is so moving and so charged with ambiguous moral lessons, that it seems almost irresponsible to complain about it on formal or historical grounds. Let's put it this way: This is an important film. It's amazing that it exists, and the events it recounts are still more amazing. Everybody should see it.

That said, the film has a certain TV-documentary feel that I found intermittently irritating. Re-creations of real events are not clearly identified as such, and historical file footage of the disaster in Sudan is not labeled with dates or place names or anything else. (Did they just appropriate random footage of starving African children? We can't be sure.) Quinn and Walker provide almost no context for the mid-1980s civil war that devastated that country and led to the near-biblical exodus of boys and young men from the agricultural regions of southern Sudan, and Nicole Kidman's voice-over narration sounds as if it were phoned in from the manicurist's chair.

There is a defense for all this, and maybe it's an adequate one. Quinn and Walker's film is only indirectly or accidentally about the horrendous Sudanese war, or about the many thousands of people who were killed, wounded or permanently uprooted by it. It's about a relatively small number of the lost boys (perhaps 3,600 or so of the 27,000 Sudanese boys driven from their homes by Muslim militias during the mid- and late '80s) who were allowed to come to the United States after several years of wandering and another decade in a Kenyan refugee camp.

Even more specifically, it's about three of those young men -- John Bul Dau, Panther Bior and Daniel Pach -- who have not only survived their ordeal but also, more or less, prospered in their new surroundings. In many ways, "God Grew Tired of Us" is a classic paradoxical fable of immigration, whose protagonists exchange a warm realm of community (and dire poverty) for a colder one of round-the-clock labor and social isolation (along with astonishing material wealth), and then try to rebuild something of what they have lost.

Dau, an inordinately tall and elegant man with philosophical inclinations, was a leader in the Kakuma, Kenya, relief camp -- he was 13 when he got there, which made him one of the older boys to make the terrible journey -- and has since become the de facto leader of the Sudanese community in the United States. He worked tirelessly to put himself through school, flipping burgers at McDonald's and packing gaskets in a factory. He has published a memoir, founded a foundation for Sudan relief and now directs a fundraising program aimed at building a medical clinic in his home region.

His inspirational saga concludes with an airport reunion with his mother, whom he hasn't seen for 17 years. Neither of them has known whether the other was alive or dead, and I defy anyone to watch this scene without weeping. I have mixed feelings about the filmmakers' decision to focus exclusively on the success stories among the lost boys (as many as 16,000 boys who began the trek out of Sudan did not survive it, and most who did survive did not find refuge in the West), but the extraordinary pent-up emotion that pours out during this scene expresses much of the terror and tragedy that "God Grew Tired of Us" otherwise keeps at bay.

Bior and Pach don't have quite such amazing stories, but both hold solid American jobs, have made contact with surviving family members and are working to help their homeland. Depicting these survivors as complicated human beings who act as agents in their own lives, rather than saints, victims or statistics, is beyond question an honorable goal. All three of these men are likable, generous, conflicted characters, profoundly grateful for their opportunities but wistful about what they have left behind.

But "God Grew Tired of Us" may convey the impression -- unintentionally, I think -- that a few years of service-sector drudgery and a community-college degree is sufficient to lift the wretched of the earth to the lower fringes of middle-class life. I wanted to slap the woman at a swimming pool who smugly asks Pach whether he enjoys more "freedoms" than he did before, as if that debased concept could mean anything to a man with his life experience.

What has really happened to John Bul Dau and his friends is more in the nature of a miraculous accident than a self-help fable, and one miracle, or three, or 100, is not sufficient to redeem the awful history that produced them. That's a fact this movie can't quite face, but perhaps it shouldn't have to. There are certainly lessons to be learned from this incredible story, but for the moment they remain mysterious. Almost as mysterious, perhaps, as the connection between Santa and Jesus, or the unsolved riddle of Palmolive green.

"God Grew Tired of Us" opens Jan. 12 in New York and Los Angeles; Jan. 19 in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco and Washington; Jan. 26 in Nashville; Feb. 2 in Dallas, St. Louis, Seattle, Tucson, Ariz., and Austin, Texas; and Feb. 9 in Pittsburgh, with more cities to follow.

"Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story": The missing girl who became a footnote to history
Speaking of mysteries, the story of 13-year-old Megumi Yokota, who disappeared in broad daylight off the street in the Japanese coastal city of Niigata one day in 1977, remains shrouded in an enigmatic cloud that may never disperse. That's because young Megumi wound up in North Korea, then as now governed by the most cloistered, secretive and thoroughly untrustworthy regime in the world.

Violent crimes against children are exceptionally rare in Japan, and as Patty Kim and Chris Sheridan's "Abduction" details, the media focused on the case for weeks while police rigorously searched the region. No trace of her was recovered, and everyone except the Yokota family gave up the quest. A couple of years later, Megumi's mother noticed an apparently unrelated news story about a handful of peculiar cases in which people -- mostly young couples on beach dates -- had disappeared from Japan's west coast, which faces the Korean peninsula. The reporter broached an outlandish theory: North Korean spies, for unknown reasons, might be kidnapping Japanese citizens.

It took 20 years before the outlandish story began to seem plausible, and longer than that for the issue to work its way to the forefront of Japanese politics. Kim and Sheridan's film isn't really about Megumi, of course (at the risk of issuing a spoiler, she never appears in person). It's about her parents, who shed the reticent conformity of middle-class Japanese life and become angry activists on behalf of the families of abductees. By the time Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi seeks to normalize diplomatic relations with Kim Jong Il's North Korean regime, in 2002, it's necessary for him to confront the Koreans on the abduction issue.

Kim's government reluctantly admits what North Korean defectors had already confirmed: Unbelievably, North Korean intelligence agents had repeatedly infiltrated Japan by sea and kidnapped ordinary citizens, to serve as language and lifestyle instructors. (North Korea wanted its spies working overseas to look, act and sound like Japanese people.) "Abduction" unfolds as a tightly plotted mystery, and it wouldn't be fair to reveal much more than that. The North Koreans admit to 13 kidnappings between 1977 and 1983 (although there may have been many more), and five surviving Japanese eventually return home, to emotional reunions that were carried live on TV and captivated the entire country.

But Megumi Yokota, who apparently spent 40 hours in a cargo container on her way to Korea, crying, vomiting and literally scratching her fingernails off, is not among the returnees. Where is she and what became of her? There are rumors, suppositions, secondhand reports and official findings, but as the Yokota family understands, there are precious few facts. "Abduction" sheds light onto one of the strangest episodes in recent Asian history, but the murk that hangs over North Korea is still too deep for much light to penetrate.

"Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story" opens Jan. 12 at Cinema Village in New York and Jan. 26 at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. It also plays Feb. 3, 4, 10 and 11 at the Hollywood Theatre in Portland, Ore., with more engagements to follow.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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