It can be hard to comprehend a complicated geopolitical conflict occurring literally on the other side of the earth. One solution is to shrink the unimaginable down to a personal story. That is the tactic filmmaker Christopher Quinn employed to present some of the horrors and hopes of the 15-year refugee crisis in war-torn Sudan.
His documentary God Grew Tired of Us, opening Fri., Feb. 9, at the Regent Square Theater, traces the recent journeys of three "Lost Boys," survivors of a harrowing odyssey across sub-Saharan Africa. In 2001, after languishing in a Kenyan refugee camp for years, the trio -- by then grown men -- were sponsored by charities for relocation to the United States. For five years, Quinn's cameras followed their new lives. Two of them, including Daniel Abol Pach, came to Pittsburgh.
Quinn's film was a quixotic venture, inspired by a news report and buoyed by his credit cards, that might have languished for funds had he not found such angels as actress Catherine Keener and A-lister Brad Pitt. Awards at last year's Sundance Film Festival and a renewed interest in troubled East Africa have likewise given the film a boost.
When I meet Pach Downtown on a snowy afternoon -- his trim business suit is augmented by a Lady Liberty tie and, in a concession to the weather, sturdy work boots -- the ebullient former Lost Boy couldn't be more pleased about the film's buzz and its potential to educate viewers.
"When people in America have seen what's going on in Sudan," he enthuses, "then there's a way we can make peace. There's going to be change, because a lot of people care."
I ask Pach, who lived so much of life disregarded by the world, if he found it odd being the focus of a motion picture. He shrugs cheerfully, and chalks it up as just another oddity of adapting to his strange new life. "When I first came here, it was really a beginning for me. I had to learn electricity, the toilet. I had never seen anything like that. I'd left home at 6 years old." He laughs, "It was like dropping a cat into an apartment and saying 'Take care of everything.'"
Pach now lives in Baldwin, studies to be a pharmacy tech, and works at Whole Foods, that cornucopia of luxury foodstuffs. He is proud to call Pittsburgh home, but admits that his new life has its own less-obvious burdens, and that watching the documentary stirs mixed feelings.
"Looking at the movie, there's a joy, because we are here. But people lost lives, and you compare: I remember so many of my friends that walked with me and died, and I say, 'Why was it me to make it here?' I worry about people who remain in [the refugee camp] and are suffering. Especially [when I see it on film] -- they're not coming here, and you are here. You eat every day, where they don't eat."
Yet Pach is hopeful that the film will spur involvement. "It's hard for one person," he says. "I need organization, so we can work together, and go to Sudan and help people there." But even for Pach the enormity of the problem grows personal, as he speaks of the mother he hasn't seen in nearly two decades. "My goal right now is my mum. I want her to come to Pittsburgh, see the Steelers, and show her how the people welcome us here."
God Grew Tired of Us starts Fri., Feb. 9. Regent Square