January 31, 2007

After Finding the Lost Boys of Sudan, Things are Looking 'Up in America' for Christopher Quinn


From Christopher Quinn's Finding the Lost Boys of Sudan

In the late 1980s, violence ravaged the southern region of Sudan, forcing tens of thousands of boys, having watched the slaughter or capture of their parents and sisters, to flee on foot in search of a safe home. After wandering sub-Saharan Africa for years, during which time it's estimated that more than 10,000 boys died, the remaining refugees made it to Kenya in 1992, where they were given food, shelter and medical care. Humanitarian aid workers at the Kakuma Refugee Camp dubbed these children "the lost boys of Sudan," a name now known worldwide.

During the same period of time that "the lost boys" were making their epic journeys across Sudan, filmmaker Christopher Quinn was living a very different life in the US, taking classes in African Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University. Having caught the filmmaking bug as early as high school, Quinn later left Virginia Commonwealth to attend Anthology Film Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he immersed himself in the school's program of documentary filmmaking and ethnography.

In 2001, the US government agreed to take in 3,600 of "the lost boys." Quinn, with a short documentary about acclaimed artist Howard Finster under his belt, heard about their plight and knew that he had to make a film.

The result, five long years later, is God Grew Tired of Us, a rich, engaging and provocative film that follows the story of three of "the lost boys" as they leave Kakuma and find a new life in the United States. The film marks an auspicious feature documentary directing debut for Quinn, who premiered the film at the 2006 Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Documentary Grand Jury Prize and the Documentary Audience Award. Quinn is this year's recipient of the IDA's Jacqueline Donnet Emerging Documentary Filmmaker Award.

Although Quinn resists the notion of God Grew Tired of Us as an overtly political film, it is clear that politics was the fuel that drove him to go to Africa and work his way through the bureaucracy of the US State Department and the UN High Council on Refugees (UNHCR), to finally gain access to Kakuma.

"When I heard about Rwanda [referring to the genocide of 1994], I thought, 'Surely, someone will intervene,' but it took a long time before anyone did," Quinn remarks. "That really set me off. And then when everything took place in Sierra Leone [civil war and mass murder led by rebels in the late '90s], I knew I had to make a film about Africa because it was falling off the radar, and in the media you weren't really hearing anything about it."

When Quinn arrived in Kenya and began filming at Kakuma, politics faded into the background. "I wanted to follow the story of these boys very closely and not go into it thinking it would be a political film," he explains. "I really just wanted to see what the true fallout of war and genocide was. And the camp was a very non-political place. The Dinkas [the primary tribe displaced by civil war in Sudan] are a very advanced society and their culture remained intact, even at Kakuma."

Quinn was met with the daunting task of finding the best stories to tell from among the 80,000 people in the camp, some of whom were part of the original group that crossed Sudan a decade before. A young man named Daniel stood out immediately. During "black days," the days where there was no food, Daniel would sing songs and tell jokes, anything to keep people entertained. Daniel's best friend was Panther, who also quickly became the focus of Quinn's filming. The third character in the film, John, made himself known to the crew by accident.

"When it was decided which refugees would go to the US, John came up to us thinking we were part of the government and pleaded with us to help his friends who were going to be left behind," Quinn says. "We knew he would be a great subject since he was already a leader in his group and was taking it upon himself to be their advocate."

Once Quinn had chosen his subjects, the film unfolded from there. "The idea was just to hang on and stay close to these guys, and to see where the story was going. We knew that so many things were going to change when we arrived in the US that all we had to do was film and watch carefully and learn."

Years worth of footage later, Quinn found himself in an editing room in New York City with a wealth of material and a lack of funding. Quinn recalls that "all the really bad money periods ended up yielding the most interesting parts of the film. I remember when I was really behind on the edit room payments, and my friend [actress] Katherine Keener came to watch what we had so far. She ended up being the best spokesperson for the film and was so supportive. She showed the film to her friends and ended up getting us to a place where we could keep going."

Friends indeed. Keener spread the word to fellow actors like Brad Pitt, who, upon hearing about the project, said, "How can I help?" It was Pitt who wired $50,000 to Quinn to help him complete post-production. Another Keener connection was Nicole Kidman. While the two were working together on The Interpreter, Keener showed Kidman portions of the film. Kidman was so enthusiastic she agreed to narrate.

The results have been rewarding for Quinn, who has found that audiences are prompted to take action when they see the film. "People have really responded and wanted to help in every capacity. Many have immediately made financial contributions to various African humanitarian aid charities."

Quinn's career, too, has been boosted by the success of the film. Through a connection at Granada Television, Quinn's work was brought to the attention of Michael Apted. Famous for his "Up" series following the ordinary lives of people at seven-year intervals, Apted had been looking for a filmmaker to direct the latest installment of his American "Up" series, 21 Up in America. After several meetings, Apted asked Quinn to take on the project, which he completed this year.

"I feel lucky in that I've done work for hire, mostly for TV, but I also got away with being able to do two documentaries back-to-back," Quinn notes. "It's a great reward because I know it's so hard to do."

When asked what he's learned from the process of following so many lives so intimately for so long, first with God Grew Tired of Us, and then with 21 Up in America, Quinn pauses, and his voice changes ever so slightly to a reflective tone. "I came away from God Grew Tired of Us having experienced these men who have incredible survival skills and conflict resolution skills that are so much more advanced than ours. I get the opportunity to come away with more knowledge every time I come back from a shoot. I feel like I'm always learning to be human through filming."

 

Paola Freccero serves on IDA's Board of Directors and is a consultant to a variety of entertainment industry clients.

Tags: