“The Good Lie” is the story of four refugees from war-torn Sudan. The film covers their flight as children traveling by foot across three countries to escape the war and then their exodus to the United States. Three of the refugees, Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), and Paul (Emmanuel Jai) end up in Missouri. A fourth refugee, Abital (Kuoth Wiel) is separated from the three men due to the bureaucracy of the federal government. The three “Lost Boys” meet Carrie (Reese Witherspoon), an employment agency counselor who attempts to get them settled into their new life in America. The guys are determined to make it in the US and reunite with Abital. I had the good fortune to be on a roundtable interview with Arnold Oceng (Mamere), Kuoth Wiel (Abital) and screenwriter Margaret Nagle.
At the screening, you mentioned that your brother passed away in the Sudan. Can you talk a little about that?
Kuoth Wiel: When I immigrated to the US, I had a brother who was a “Lost Boy.” He eventually found his way into Kenya and then immigrated to Minnesota. We didn’t even know he was alive. In 2009, he went back to the Sudan and was killed. To this day we still don’t know what happened. It was something to do with the government. I was hard for me to do this film because of that. I had a lot of anger built up about that. In doing this film, I kind of reconciled all those feelings I had about the Sudan.
What kept you strong while making this film?
Kuoth: I dedicated this film to him. I lost someone that I loved due to this war. So I had to take away my own selfish feelings about the war. Retelling this story about my country was cathartic, and now the world gets to see our story.
Once this film comes out, you will be the new face of this story of Sudan. How do you feel about having that responsibility?
Arnold Oceng: I don’t know if we will be the face of it, but with this film, we will have a wider audience to be aware of what is happening. I grew up in London, and I didn’t know about it. I was unaware of the story. It had been on the news, but I was totally unaware of it. Now that we are involved with the film, there is a certain responsibility that we tell the story correctly. We are basically ambassadors now. We have to keep promoting the film and the website.
Talk about the journey of how you got this film made. Did it take you twelve years to get this film made?
Margaret Nagle: It eleven years. We started shooting ten years to the day that I got the job. It was my first feature film job. I had written a spec script “Warm Springs” that was shot in Georgia. That movie hadn’t been made yet but used that script to get an interview for this movie. It was my first interview for a movie. I came into the meeting with the entire movie laid out. I started pitching the whole movie in detail, and they went “slowdown.” I ended up getting the job and the producer of the film, Bobby Newmyer, who produced ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape,” died at age 48. So the film then got put into turnaround, meaning the studio is never letting it out for anybody. But studios don’t know that there is a rule with the Writers Guild, that after five years, you can go in and get your screenplay out for an eighteen-month free option. Every job I got after I wrote this script, I got because of it. I got “Boardwalk Empire” because of this script, using the script as a sample to get other work. I had a calendar where I marked off the days till the 5-year anniversary, and we sent a registered letter that day of the 5-year anniversary. We had it financed for a little while but at 12 months, that financing fell through. We had six months left, and people kept saying that the odds of a movie like this getting made were so small. I would tell them, no it’s 50/50. I either will get it made or I won’t. So it got to the desk of Molly Smith, and it turns out Molly Smith’s father adopted a lost boy at their church in Memphis. They put him through college, where he now has a Ph.D. and works at Fed Ex. She read the script and said “This is about the Lost Boys. I’ll make this film for my brother. On the last day possible, we brought in a cashier’s check to Paramount and bought the script back. Molly got a bunch of people together and put this film together. It’s a fifteen million dollar budget independent film, and Warner Brothers is releasing in the states, and Lionsgate is distributing it internationally. So we got distribution but we made it as an independent film.
Kouth, talk a little about your background.
Kouth: At the time, I auditioned for the role; I was working as a model and was majoring in psychology. I had done a few small commercials but when I was offered the role, I knew I would have to leave school behind. So it was a sacrifice that I made to leave my last semester in college. So my focus before getting this film was getting my degree. So when I got the role, I told my professors about the film, and they set it up for me to finish the year online. So I worked on the film and worked on school at the same time.
So now that you have made your first film which route will you take? Are you going to become an actor or a phycologist?
Kouth: Right now I would love to do more acting. I got my degree, so I don’t need to hold myself back, so I can do some more acting. But I also want to do some work with refugees, especially children.
This seemed like such an emotional journey you both had to go on to make this film. It must have been draining to shoot such an emotional film.
Arnold: For me, portraying Mamere was tiring at times. He is like an emotional hexagon. He goes through so many emotions. He matures through the film. The guilt from what happened to him as a child just kills him. He can’t bare living with the guilt over the sacrifices that his brother did for him. Plus, Paul never lets him forget that also. Paul just chips away at him, which Paul thinks is the right decision to make. That’s why the film is called “The Good Lie.” “The Good Lie” is a sacrifice. You sacrifice for the greater good. And he has to live with that. So playing Mamere was the hardest role I have had to play. I thrived on playing this role. I loved it. I’d come back from filming and just sit in my room thinking, “Wow that was an impactful, emotional day!” The role was so emotional that you just couldn’t help but cry. That’s never happened to me before. It was really difficult, but I loved it.
This is a very difficult issue to write about. Talk about your philosophy of writing. Why do you seem to gravitate to this type of story?
Margaret: Well, they say write about what you know. My life has always been really complicated. My older brother was in a car accident when he was little. He damaged his brain stem in the accident and was in a coma. He is a spastic quadriplegic who is brain damaged. I shared a room with him when I was growing up. So that impacted my life and the way that I look at the world. It impacted the way I view empathy and way I view struggle. Childhood can really be complicated. Even as a kid you can have a hard time. I saw my parents have a hard time. I found great solace with my family. And I had friendships with a handful of kids that understood how dark my childhood was. So to love one another and have empathy and compassion, we need to hear stories like this. You look at Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn”, which was set in Missouri, right where the film takes place. This idea of sacrifice. When I was presented this story, I thought about my own life and my brother. Our commitment to each other as children and our quest to survive. Then compare that to the story of the Sudan, which is a much bigger story. The world needs to know this story that there are still “Lost Boys” sitting in refugee camps that can’t get out. They have been living in these camps for a big chunk of their lives, and we are in a position to shed light on it.
This is your first film. Was it the experience you thought it would be?
Kouth: No, but in a good way. I learned a lot about commitment and professionalism from my fellow actors on the set. I also learned a lot about myself, of who I am as a Sudanese person. I learned about my responsibility to the story. Because I am not just a character in the film, I am a living person who went through the war in Sudan. I learn a lot about who I am and also, how I can contribute to the world. And because of the film, I feel I have more power to do so. I feel very privileged to get that opportunity.
Margaret: Our director, Philippe Falardeau, started as a documentary filmmaker who went to Sudan in 1994 and was not able to complete a documentary about the war. He was chased out by gunfire and always wanted to come back and finish telling the story. He’s a great filmmaker. He made “Monsieur Lazhar” two years ago, which is such a beautiful film. He has such restraint. He is French Canadian, so he has a kind of an international perspective. What was great was for him to bring in a different perspective to the film and a level of authenticity. This film wasn’t shot in the typical Hollywood style. It assumes the audience is very smart. It doesn’t over-explain or re-explain anything. This film was made so you get on for the ride, and you stay on till it’s done. He really understood the material. We are so lucky he wanted to do this movie, because if someone else had directed it wouldn’t have turned out the way it did.
Thank you so much and good luck with this film.
“The Good Lie” opens nationwide on Friday, Oct. 3rd.
If you want to help South Sudanese children in crisis and “Lost Boys and Girls” communities, please go to www.thegoodlifefund.org