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'Good Lie' stars feel big responsibility in telling riveting tale of Sudanese refugees

Actors inform roles coming from war-torn Sudan

Emmanuel Jal, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany and Kouth Wiel in "The Good Lie'."
Emmanuel Jal, Arnold Oceng, Ger Duany and Kouth Wiel in "The Good Lie'." (Warner Bros.)

For most of the stars of the new drama "The Good Lie," the story of how a group of Sudanese refugees resettled in America wasn't just a tale for the sake of cinema; it was a recreation, effectively, of what many of them experienced in real life.

Directed by Phillipe Falardeau and written by Margaret Nagel, "The Good Lie" cast includes Arnold Oceng and Kouth Wiel, who lost parents in war-torn Sudan; and Emmanuel Jal and Ger Duany, two Sudanese "Lost Boys" who were forced in their youth to become child soldiers in the conflict.

"The Good Lie," which stars Reese Witherspoon as a employment agency counselor who makes a huge difference in the refugees' live, opens in select theaters across the country Friday, before expanding later in the month.

Oceng, Wiel, Jal and Duany, who chatted with me about the film this week, said the opportunity to be in a major film production with an Oscar-winning actress was a huge thrill; but ultimately, the biggest value they found in the experience came with a chance to tell a story that all of them lived through.

"I think we all felt an amount of responsibility to tell the right story and we're doing our people and the story justice," Oceng said. "Most of the success of the story boils down to Margaret Nagel's amazing writing, to be honest, and her attention to detail."

The fact that he and his fellows actors were all of Sudanese descent, naturally added to the authenticity of the film, Oceng said, and the personal history of Falardeau in Sudan pulled it all together.

"What Phillipe experienced -- he was filming a documentary and chased by warlords -- made all links in the chain somehow come together," Oceng added. "It's why the film is so personal and emotional."

Wiel, who was studying for a social psychology degree in Minneapolis before casting, was the only member of the group that didn't have acting experience. In many ways, though, Wiel didn't need it because she was born into the strife.

"To retell the story of your own history, in a sense, is a lot of responsibility, but it's also so very uplifting because now, the story has been brought to light," Wiel explained. "People will see what you have gone through, and I feel it's going to bridge a lot of gaps for Sudanese immigrants in the U.S. or even immigrants in general. The film is a huge educational tool and creates an awareness."

While the film's subject matter was difficult for Duany and Emmanuel to confront because of their past as child soldiers in the second Sudanese Civil War, they embraced it because it also told the story of the hope that would eventually become their future.

"We went through the pain, but we were welcome to this part of the world where we made ourselves a home," Duany said. "Now that we have homes here, it gives us a different perspective of our pasts. Even though the film shows the pain that we went through, I was willing to go through it again because the movie is not about us, who came here to escape the war, but those who are still in the war right now-- not only in Sudan, but all around the world. We had a responsibility to tell this story in the best way we remember it."

Jal helped build his performance by recalling tragic memories, no matter how difficult it was.

"I had to remember horrific things from my childhood -- I would look at Ger sometimes and tell him I wanted to cry because it was very emotional, but I couldn't," Jal recalled. "Ger said, 'It's OK now. We are in America, where men can cry.' It was very difficult for me. The only time tears came out of my eyes was when I had to think about my village burning down. I had to think about that moment for a couple of seconds -- to take myself back -- and remember how frustrated I was, unable to change anything."

Like Duany, who has also filmed a documentary about being a Sudanese war child, Jal has previously informed his career as a rap artist with his experiences of the war; and he's thrilled now that collective voices can tell it again through "The Good Lie" on the world stage.

"I've been telling this story through my music, and a book and a documentary called 'War Child.' Everywhere I go I share my experiences of the past," Jal said. "Now, this movie is a combination of many voices together -- of all the Lost Boys around the world sharing their experiences -- was very exciting to be a part of because it's going to create a conscience and create new angels who are going to find their purpose. It tells about the great human beings who are not seen doing great things in the world, and getting transformed in the process."

Wiel, who submitted papers to her college online during filming to complete her social psychology degree, said she's going to concentrate mostly on acting for now, but will still find a way to use her education.

"I'm using my degree to help work with humanitarian organizations and the UN," Wiel said. "I want to do more advocating for women and children, and also want to provide resources for children and other people in traumatic situations in refugee camps."