I've been looking for examples of documentaries about refugees to get a better idea of how to structure a story for ours. I came across "God Grew Tired of Us," a 2006 documentary produced by Christopher Quinn that won Sundance's Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. The film follows three of Sudan's "lost boys," a group of displaced young men who fled the wars in Sudan in the 1980s and have been living as refugees in bordering countries ever since, as they move from Kenya to the United States. One of the most interesting parts of this film is the beginning. The filmmakers actually filmed them in their refugee camp and got scenes of the boys getting assigned to their new areas (two are going to Pittsburgh, one is going to Syracuse). It even shows them as they take their first plane ride (a highlight is when they're served airplane food and can't figure out what everything is).
|The "lost boys" boarding a plane from Kenya to the United States.|
The film continues, and shows them getting acclimated to their new home. The lost boys learn about their new apartment and get introduced to amenities they've never seen before (flush toilets, showers, electricity). They are also shown around a grocery store and learn about common American foods (broccoli, hoagie buns, donuts). These scenes are comical but also very interesting. It's difficult for most people to imagine the conditions these people have lived in for most of their lives, and it's hard to illustrate that. However, in seeing their amazed reactions to things that have become so commonplace to us in America, the audience gets a better sense of where they come from and what things they've been deprived of in their life.
|In their first trip to a grocery store, the "lost boys" are offered to sample a donut.|
Without including direct interviews, it's also apparent through dirty glances on the street that many Americans aren't comfortable with the "lost boys" living in their community. This is more subtle and, in my opinion, more powerful than having a talking head interview with someone rattling off their xenophobic beliefs. The film is mostly talking heads, which I think is one of the main detractions. It does include a lot of footage of the main characters going about their daily lives — Working, shopping, eating, etc. It just combines these scenes with talking head interviews, which is effective but at times gets a bit boring to look at. If they had just asked them the interview questions while they were working, shopping, eating, etc, then I think the visuals would have been slightly more interesting.
|A typical (and poorly lit) talking head interview from "God Grew Tired of Us."|
Another detraction is that the camerawork looks slightly amateur at times. As you can see in the screenshot above, interviews are often very badly lit. It was likely a challenge because the main characters are very dark skinned, but in a seated talking head interview with one subject, I don't think there's much of an excuse for poor lighting. The camerawork in other parts is smooth but uninteresting. You do get the sense that you're given a privileged view, being shown something you otherwise never would have, but the cinematography borders on almost home-video style with little composition.
Overall, though, this film is a success due to the storyline it crafts. There's a clear beginning, middle, and end. It follows its main characters as they prepare to leave their refugee camp, take their first plane ride over, adjust to their new home, and build a life here. Dani and I would love to have similar scenes in our film, but I know much of that will be unattainable. For one thing, as of right now we can't travel to a refugee camp to film a group of people preparing to come to the United States. We'd love to, but budgets and time obviously wont allow it. We are also doing our best to try to meet refugees who are brand new in the country, as we'd like scenes of people adjusting to their new culture. However, the refugee organizations we're working with are understandably hesitant to introduce us to people who are brand new in the country. They have enough to worry about without having a camera shoved in their faces. It's possibly too lofty a goal for this semester, but Dani and I are both interested in continuing to work on the film after the semester is over. So, given enough time, perhaps the organizations we're working with will feel comfortable enough to introduce us to refugees who have just arrived in Buffalo.
This film has given me ideas for things we can do in ours. To begin with, I'm thinking more about specific main characters we can follow. At the moment, Dani and I have a good problem: there are so many organizations and refugees in Buffalo that we have almost too many people to talk to. Though we don't have access to anyone who just got here, we do have access to people who have become leaders in the refugee community. I think we should pick two of them and follow them as they work with newcomers and discuss the issues new refugees face. Toward the end of "God Grew Tired of Us," one of the "lost boys" becomes a community leader and works to bring more refugees to Syracuse. I think we have characters who are similar, and I think this could be an interesting storyline that highlights the issues we'd like to address in our film.
|John Bul Dau, one of the main characters in "God Grew Tired of Us," discusses the conflict in Sudan and his life as a refugee. Bul Dau has become a community leader in Syracuse and is working to help bring more refugees over to the United States.|
Though we can't follow many of the storylines "God Grew Tired of Us" does (though maybe one day!), I think this film sets an example for how to show issues facing newcomers to this country. Even though it's a bit heavy on talking heads, there are many issues that are shown rather than told to us, and I think that's the standard we should try to achieve moving forward.