Emmanuel Jal has many scarring memories from when he was conscripted as a boy to fight in the second Sudanese civil war. But few stand out like the time he and other child soldiers escaped their quarters as members of the rebel Sudanese People’s Liberation Army they had been pressured to join.
“There were a few hundred of us, and there was no food,” Jal, now 34, said. “And right there I was tempted to eat my friend. That’s actually the moment I remember the cannibalism started.”
He paused. “There were so many other things I don’t think I’ll ever be able to share.”
Jal, who survived the war after being taken in by a British aid worker in Kenya, is one of the thousands of so-called lost boys who grew up in the shadow of the bloody conflict and eventually found asylum in the West — in his case, even winning renown as a musician. His latest role, though, is even more unlikely — as an actor in the new drama “The Good Lie,” re-enacting traumas in a fictional film that for him are all too real.
Written by screenwriter Margaret Nagle (TV’s “Red Band Society”) and directed by Oscar nominee Philippe Falardeau (“Monsieur Lazhar”), the film is inspired by the real-life Sudan war refugees who wound up in communities in Atlanta, Kansas City, Mo., and other American cities.
The first half-hour is set in Africa and focuses on South Sudanese children forced on journeys of more than 1,000 miles on foot after violence claimed the lives of their parents and siblings. (The 22-year conflict between the government and rebels, which ended in 2005, is estimated to have killed 2 million people and displaced 4 million more. Problems of hunger were so great during the war that, as Jal described, people often died of starvation and a few resorted to cannibalism.) Against all odds, a few survived and made it to the infamous Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.
More than a decade later, three boys, now young men, are relocated to Kansas City, where a Christian charity and a tough-minded job recruiter (Reese Witherspoon) await.
The movie then shifts gears and becomes an immigrant drama, as the tight-knit trio (Jal plays one of the men) must adjust to an entirely new life — they’d never seen a bed, let alone a telephone — and yearn to be reunited with their adopted Sudanese sister, who’s been sent to Boston. Far from a sentimental story, the film is a thoughtful look at how harsh circumstances can both hurt and forge a person, and an examination of immigrant fraternity and alienation.
Despite the presence of a movie star, Brian Grazer as a producer and a release via Warner Bros., it is the South Sudanese characters’ stories, with their brutal hardships and small triumphs, that take center stage. Rarely do modern Hollywood entities take on atrocities like this; it’s even less common for them to do so with the very people who lived through them.
“Even though the American perspective was important story-wise and financially, I always knew the main character would be the ensemble, the brothers and sisters that became a family unit,” said Falardeau, a French Canadian who briefly shot a documentary in South Sudan 20 years ago and, for this film, traveled to Kakuma to conduct research and shoot exteriors.
“I wanted to make this as real as possible,” he added. “This needed to be a reminder that heroism is not just about soldiers and firefighters, but about kids without any means or resources finding a way to survive.”
One of those children was Ger Duany. A tall man who speaks in quiet tones, Duany estimates he walked thousands of miles between South Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya in the 1990s as new threats kept materializing. Spontaneous attacks and violence was one hazard; a lack of water was another, often more fatal, danger.
Duany also channels those struggles in the movie.
“Usually in a film you have to put aside your personal life,” he said. “But it was our responsibility to carry our emotions on to the camera.”
Those feelings helped him in some very specific ways. The movie concerns one of the men coping with guilt that his older brother volunteered himself for the army so his sibling could run away. It was a dynamic Duany understood all too well.
“I had a brother who was forced to go to war. He would always say, ‘You don’t follow my footsteps; don’t become a soldier.’ And then he disappeared,” Duany recalled. “Even when I heard he died, I didn’t believe it. I thought he was hiding somewhere. I couldn’t believe he was gone.”
Pluck and luck
For all of Hollywood’s commitment to social causes, there are few suggestions that stop an entertainment-industry conversation in its tracks faster than “Let’s finance a movie about immigrants and a distant conflict.”
Yet when “The Good Lie” arrives Friday in about 400 theaters — many of them in the South and Midwest — it will show that those conversations aren’t always nonstarters. It can just take years of pluck, luck and unexpected turns involving an adoptee of a FedEx mogul to get somewhere.
About a decade ago, Nagle was an aspiring writer with a modest résumé. Nagle — a onetime actress best known to “My So-Called Life” completists as the ignored biology teacher Ms. Chavatal — had one writing credit with any kind of development traction — an HBO movie about FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt titled “Warm Springs.” But when Nagle heard that producer Robert Newmyer had set up at Paramount a story of Sudan’s lost boys, she pushed for a meeting with him.
Several years before, the writer had been selling handbags out of her car as a way to supplement her income. Her suppliers were Senegalese, and they fueled her interest in Africa and African issues. She also grew up with a brother who was hurt in a crippling accident. She told Newmyer she wanted to make a movie that centered not just on Africa but on siblings — after all, the lost boys created ad hoc families in their journey across the rugged South Sudan landscape — a film that, as she described it, “explored the idea of the brothers you’re born with and the brothers you meet on the way.” It would be a story of their trials and their rescue, with the assist of some pragmatic fibs along the way (the “good lie” of the title).
Nagle wouldn’t make the film without the lost boys’ blessing, so the writer — an enthusiastic woman with Buddy Holly glasses — took trips to the communities where they lived — Kansas City, Atlanta, Phoenix and San Diego. After a marathon meeting where many of the tribal leaders were convened (a meeting, incidentally, attended by both a top Amnesty International official and Dave Eggers, at the time writing his Africa-set novel “What Is the What?”), she won their approval.
What followed was a twisty back story even by Hollywood standards of development. Newmyer died at age 49 in 2005, and Paramount, which had previously replaced Nagle as writer, shelved the project. She got back the rights in 2010 and was able to develop it at a screenwriting lab set up by Grazer and Ron Howard — though they couldn’t get it made at home studio Universal Pictures either; a movie about young African men walking 1,000 miles across a desert doesn’t exactly scream Tom Cruise action vehicle.
Almost as an afterthought, Nagle submitted it as a writing sample to an upstart production company called Black Label run by producer Molly Smith. Smith is the daughter of Fred Smith, the chief of FedEx and backer of the Warner Bros.-based Alcon Entertainment. It turned out that Molly Smith had a connection to the material — her family in Memphis had taken in a lost boy in 2001 when he appeared at the family’s church.
“I couldn’t believe it when I read it,” Smith recounted. “I called my mother right away and said, ‘This is Joseph’s story,’” referring to her adopted brother.
Smith said she would finance the film — the final budget was a bit less than $15 million — and use Alcon, the production company that has coveted slots on the Warner Bros. slate as a distribution platform. (It didn’t hurt that Alcon was coming off the mega-success of “The Blind Side,” also a film with faith-based appeal about the underprivileged overcoming obstacles.)
The film would — and indeed does — touch on evangelical Christianity, but lightly; religion is a part of the lost boys’ lives but it’s never used to exaggerated effect, and Witherspoon is far from the central or saintly figure played by Sandra Bullock in “Blind Side.” Warner Bros. has also marketed the film to Southern pastors and religious groups in addition to its traditional mainstream-media campaign.
Smith said she hoped both religious and secular people would respond to it, in part because the movie found a dramatic tone “somewhere between ‘Hotel Rwanda’ on one side and ‘Coming to America’ on the other.”
(It’s worth noting that the movie also comes as South Sudan over the last eight months has again been pulled into conflict, creating new humanitarian crises, and as the number of refugees in places such as Syria and Iraqi Kurdistan continue to multiply.)
After Smith joined up, Witherspoon and Falardeau soon signed on, and a plan was enacted to shoot in Atlanta and South Africa. But casting the lost boys was tricky. Falardeau wanted largely Sudanese non-professionals. Some of the other backers, however, were nervous, and Falardeau had to put into effect what he called a “Plan B” — veteran African American actors who would adopt Sudanese accents.
Eventually, Duany and Jal won everyone over, as did Kuoth Wiel, a young woman who had fled South Sudan with her family as a little girl. (The third male lead, Arnold Oceng, traces ancestors to East Africa but grew up in London; he is a professional actor.)
For the young versions of the characters, Falardeau had an even more novel idea: Recruit the children of lost boys, who would now be the same age as their parents were early in the war, from churches across the U.S. His casting director, Mindy Marin, set out on a van trip across the country to find those most suitable. When they had a good group, the production flew them and their parents to the South African set for what turned into a kind of group catharsis.
“It was,” Falardeau said, “like reliving the war with the next generation.”
Comedy and brutal reality
Hollywood actors often like to talk about channeling pain for their roles. But that phrase took on a rather different meaning on “The Good Lie,” where real-life hardships coursed under the film. Witherspoon recalled one day on the Atlanta set when the production van she was riding in passed some road kill. Some of the crew became distraught at the site of the dead animal, until Duany quietly noted that the scene was not unlike things he would see growing up in Sudan, only with people.
“The crew member said, ‘Did that make you upset when you saw that?’” Witherspoon recalled.” And Ger said, ‘No, we would look at the clothes to see if they had bullet holes, and if it didn’t we’d take their clothes off their backs because we didn’t have any of our own.’”
She exhaled, then said, “Stories like that would just blow me away.” (Witherspoon, incidentally, is in another fact-based movie about arduous journeys this season — the upcoming literary adaptation “Wild,” about a middle-class woman’s soul-searching trek up the Pacific coast.)
Moments in the film also can alternate between fish-out-of-water comedy and brutal reality. When Jal’s character worries that a farm he visits owned by the boss of Witherspoon’s character (Corey Stoll) might be attacked by a lion, the moment elicits a poignant laugh. But it’s all too real for Jal, who in Sudan had people close to him killed in lion attacks. Jal also said he drew on his experience as a child soldier while performing: “Being a soldier is all acting. All you do is fire your gun in the air and try to make the other person think you’re not scared too.”
Once on set, Duany was joined by a friend and fellow lost boy from Atlanta. Stoll was in the hotel room with them, and they were all laughing as the man, nicknamed King Deng, literally pulled out his stomach, which was mutilated in the fighting.
“I think at that point I was in denial about how real the story was,” Stoll said. “These are extraordinary people. I don’t think everyone could handle the arc of a life that takes you from a village attacked by an army to adapting to American culture to this incredibly artificial, bizarre world of Hollywood. Emmanuel’s chair on set was next to Reese Witherspoon. Reese Witherspoon. I couldn’t get over that.”
Wiel lost her father during the war, and walked hundreds of miles across dangerous territory with other children to reach a refugee camp. “The oldest was 8,” she recalled, holding back tears. She took a breath as she composed herself. “It’s hard. I know people will see this movie and to them it’s a movie. But to us it’s our lives. People would say, ‘How do you act?’ But for me it wasn’t acting. It was just being me.”