In 1983, a bloody civil war broke out in Sudan, decimating villages and leaving more than 100,000 children orphaned or displaced. Many walked 1,000 miles to neighboring Kenya or Ethiopia seeking safety, and those who survived the dangerous journey wound up in crowded refugee camps. Years later, a United Nations-sponsored relocation effort brought a fortunate 3,600 young adults, known as the Lost Boys to America. The new movie "The Good Lie," which opens in select cities on Oct. 3 and expands to other cities on Oct. 10 and 17, is the fictional but fact-based story of the experiences of these boys and girls.
Screenwriter Margaret Nagle based her characters on first-hand accounts from interviews with the travelers, and she found a champion in producer Bobby Newmyer, but he passed away before he could get the movie made. An invitation to participate in Imagine Entertainment Writer's Lab in 2010 resulted in getting the film back on track with director Philippe Falardeau at the helm. Actors Reese Witherspoon and Corey Stoll signed on to play American employment counselors, but Falardeau wanted to cast the central roles with Sudanese actors, so he put out calls through social media, community groups, and a website, eventually auditioning 1,500-plus people.
By the time "The Good Lie" began shooting in South Africa (standing in for Sudan and Kenya) and Atlanta (subbing for Kansas City, Missouri, where the principals in the story immigrated), Falardeau found several non-actor children of Lost Boys to play the young people who flee their destroyed village, and cast three of the adult principal roles with former Sudanese refugees who had survived similar traumatic experiences.
Ger Duany and Emmanuel Jal were both forced to become child soldiers in the Sudanese civil war. Kuoth Weil, the sister of a Lost Boy, was born in a refugee camp. Their painful memories of war-torn Sudan and adjusting to a strange new home made playing their characters in "The Good Lie" all too real, as they revealed in recent interviews.
MNN: How similar was "The Good Lie" to your personal experience?
Kuoth Weil: Very similar. My life is very parallel to the story. I was born in a refugee camp in Ethiopia. My parents were aid workers for the United Nations. Very often we walked back and forth between Sudan and Ethiopia. I dealt with the war first hand. At the time I was born, my brother was in Kenya in a refugee camp. We didn't know if he was alive. He ended up in Minnesota. He somehow found us in the refugee camp, and we immigrated to Minneapolis in 1998 and have been there ever since. My father died in 1993, but I wasn't an orphan. I had a mother. I had to do some research about being an orphan. I knew women who went through a similar situation and drew from their experiences.
Ger Duany: There is a lot of authenticity, with the children being involved in the war. The war came to our villages and I was forced to fight. Then at 14, I fled to Kenya. Everyone was looking for a place to be safe. My family is still in Sudan. I left on my own in 1994, as a Lost Boy arriving in Iowa and didn't see my mom and dad for 18 years. I went back to look for them in 2010. There had been no communication. My family thought I was dead. We are the lost generation.
Emmanuel Jal: This is like my story being told but a different version. In my story I ended up becoming a child soldier. I was 7 when I left my home and got trained when I was 8 or 9. From the time I was born the country was always in war. It was a long journey to Ethiopia and then back to South Sudan. I escaped when I was 13 with a group of 200 to 400 young people and adults. It was a deadly journey. Only 16 people survived. It was the lowest point I've ever been. Cannibalism crossed my mind. I was tempted to eat my friend. We were eating snails, vultures, rats but those things went away. I met a British aid worker who got me to Kenya, but she died and my life became more difficult. When she was alive, she put me in school. I became a musician and became popular in Kenya and got international attention at Live Aid. When Peter Gabriel introduced me on stage, my career began. It's been a long time of growth and now I'm here. I live in Toronto now.
Ger Duany in a scene from "The Good Lie."
How difficult was having the movie evoke such painful memories?
Jal: It was a difficult time doing the movie because to do those scenes, I had to go back to my childhood and remember the village burning, that anger at how the war destroyed the soul of my village and robbed people’s souls. To get the real tears I had to get into the character and had to use my painful past.
Weil: When I was younger, we didn't talk about that much because I was in that mode of moving on and letting the past be the past. So to bring it up with all these emotions I felt like I was going through the war all over again. It was hard — almost every single day we did it because it was something that was so fresh in our lives. This was our story and we felt the responsibility of that. At times it became burdening to do it, but I knew we had to.
Duany: Storytelling is a very important thing in our culture and now that we’re in the Western world, we tell it in the form of motion pictures. It's a way to heal. It's always painful. But running away from it doesn’t always mean you are healing. I think this movie can make me grow and I can show the transformation of the Lost Boys of Sudan. We’re not lost anymore.
Was coming to the States a culture shock?
Weil: Of course, especially with the weather and the landscape. We came in the summer. We were fooled. We didn't know what we were getting into. Then winter happened. That was a shocking experience. I was 8 or 9 years old at the time and had to adjust to school. I was taught everything over one summer to get up to grade level.
Duany: I didn't speak the language. I didn't know how to dress for cold weather. But you have to embrace pain sometimes. Whatever doesn't kill us makes us stronger.
Jal: I had more difficulties when I was in Kenya when I was young. I was smuggled into Nairobi. I was an illegal immigrant. I stayed at different people's houses. You find ways to survive. Sometimes I lived in a slum with eight people in one room.
How did you become involved in "The Good Lie?"
Duany: I came across the story 10 years ago when I was doing "I Heart Huckabees." I was shooting in Los Angeles for three months and I met Bobby Newmyer, who told me he wanted to make a movie about the Lost Boys of Sudan, and I shared my personal experience as a guy who escaped the war. That was 2003, and in 2004 Bobby died, and I thought the story was buried with him. In 2013, my friend in New York showed me a script; they were looking for South Sudanese talent, and it looked like the story Bobby had told me 10 years ago. I emailed the casting director who said, "We've been looking for you but didn’t know how to find you!"
Jal: They approached me to look for actors for them, and I did that and they asked me to audition. I did a movie called "Africa United" before. I did a role where I was a villain.
Weil: I heard about it through social media. A friend of mine was auditioning for it and sent it to me. At first I was taken aback because I'd never seen a movie specifically casting for South Sudanese actors. I read the script and wanted to be involved. I had not acted professionally before, just in school. I loved every single moment of it. You learn so much on a big production like this. I was absorbing everything on set. I even showed up when I didn’t have to shoot.
From left, Ger Dunday, Kuoth Weil and Reese Witherspoon skate during a scene from "The Good Lie."
Have you been back to Africa since you left? Do you still have family there?
Weil: I haven't, other than shooting in South Africa. My family is still in Sudan, 30-plus immediate family members, and friends we left behind. They have Skype but right now our country is going through civil war all over again so it’s hard to communicate with people. In refugee camps, trying to locate everyone is very hard.
Duany: Yes, I was at the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya with UNICEF, and going back there brought back a lot of memories about life in the camp and of our civil war.
Jal: We have a huge family. Most of my brothers and sisters survived, but war came up again. My sister told me she knows of 60 people from our family who were killed, including two of my closest brothers. My mom died but my dad is alive. He's in South Sudan. He doesn't want to get out.
What are your plans, current and future?
Weil: I was taking acting classes in New York and now I'm living in Los Angeles and ready to dive into it. I don’t want to restrict myself. I want to do more drama. Definitely comedy. I'm open to a lot of possibilities. In the humanitarian field, I want to do more advocating for women and children and refugees from Sudan and everywhere. I'd like to develop some kind of psychological trauma relief program for the refugee camp for children who have gone through war. The producers created the Good Lie Fund so they could help people in the refugee camps. We want to raise awareness. It's on the website and we're working closely with UNICEF to distribute funds to the camp. It's important to me. The U.N. got me here in the first place.
Jal: We live in very competitive environment, and to survive you need at least six skills. One skill is no longer enough. I can use acting for my social movement and lead the change I want to see with the benefits that come with it, and do something tangible. With my voice I can try to inspire those out there that life is possible. I have two songs on the movie’s soundtrack. And I have an album out called "The Key," an album I made of songs inspired by the movie featuring Nelly Furtado, Nile Rodgers. The proceeds from the album will go to help small business owners that have an impact on children’s lives. Through my music a lot of good things happened. I was able to establish a charity called Gua Africa through the schools back home that services 2,000 children. I was able to set a headquarters in Nairobi to put guys through school and get a degree, now we have engineers, lawyers. I've been telling my story through music, a documentary and book [both called "Warchild"] and now a film, because I have a chance and a responsibility to do this story justice.
Duany: I've been living and working in New York for the past nine years as a model and actor. I'm knowledgeable about not only Sudan but the overall situation in Africa, especially having to do with war, and I speak and share [at public appearances]. I've been writing a memoir, I like to get my ideas on paper. Sudan has plunged back into civil war and families are living in border countries Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia with no food. Humanitarian organizations are doing their best to meet the needs of the people. So it’s important that people support "The Good Lie" if they want to help, and go to the Good Lie Fund and contribute.
Emmanuel Jal in a scene from The Good Lie.
When you think about your old life compared to the life you have now, what stands out?
Weil: It's like you have no hope and then you see heaven. It’s a dream come true and a blessing and an example of knowing you can get out of anything. To be in a country where I can make my own future and do everything for myself is very empowering.
Duany: The world is not just black and white. Pain is something that is there and life is full of challenges. How do we overcome them? Understand that there is joy and this is the life I am meant to live. This is the journey that was meant for me.
Jal: A war child, a lost boy the devil tried to destroy
With so much pain and very little joy
I came from the bottom like a lobster
Now I’m rolling on the top like a rock star.
I wrote that on the road while doing interviews for "The Good Lie."
Kuoth Weil in a scene from The Good Lie.
What messages do you hope audiences take away from the movie?
Duany: In life we all have many choices that we can make. This is a humanitarian story, a story for all of us. Seeing this movie you can feel pain and joy. My goal is to share the story of the Sudanese people with the world.
Weil: It shows the resiliency that these people have. It’s about new beginnings too, going to a new place and starting over, starting life again. The movie for me was a journey. I had so much deep-rooted anger towards my country, because of everything that was taken away from me. But it was growth for me and I use it as a reconciliation process. It got me to recognize why this happened and accept my own past. I feel that now I'm more aware of what’s happening and as the only South Sudanese woman in the movie, that I can be a voice for the women of South Sudan. There were a lot of Lost Girls who came to the United States, and in a way it validates their struggle. What we see happening on the screen is still happening in Sudan today. So I want to raise awareness, have people come and talk about it, and also do something to help. Also the main theme of the movie is staying together and the things we can achieve when we work together.
Jal: It's a story of humanity. You don't see black or white, you see humans trying to survive. It's a story with purpose that’s going to help people and help them discover their purpose. What makes us human is we give. The more we extend our hand, the more knowledge we have, the more barriers we break between each other, the better we make our world. I believe there's goodness in every human being. It’s easy for us to rush to war. Peace is justice, equality and freedom for all. Our scars are what brought us thus far. Human beings have many scars inside them and outside them. With the hate we go through, if we don't die, it only makes us stronger.
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