Actors tap into past for film on Sudanese refugees

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Actors tap into past for film on Sudanese refugees

LOS ANGELES - Emmanuel Jal couldn’t cry on command.

Despite behind-the-scenes assistance from some tear-inducing eye drops, the stoic hip-hop artist, activist and sometimes actor struggled to turn on the waterworks while filming his most emotional scene in “The Good Lie,’’ a fictionalized account of Sudanese refugees coming to America.

“It did not work,’’ said Jal. “I had to look for tears within and become vulnerable like a child.’’

The tears flowed naturally for Jal, a former child soldier, only when he recalled the times he lost family members during a bloody civil war in his native Sudan. They flowed, too, when he considered cannibalizing his dying friend after escaping from the rebel South Sudan army. Channeling his own pain, he found the power to weep on set.

“The Good Lie,’’ originally conceived more than a decade ago by screenwriter Margaret Nagle, centers on a group of Sudanese children trekking 1,000 miles on foot, evading rebel soldiers, battling starvation and eventually finding asylum in the United States.

It’s a real-world tale Jal knows well. After fleeing from rebels, he was smuggled into Kenya by a British aid worker in the 1990s. He was 11 years old. (Jal served as the subject of the 2008 documentary “War Child.’’)

In “The Good Lie,’’ he portrays Paul, the quick-learning member of a surviving trio of adopted brothers who are relocated to Kansas City as adults, separated from their sister, who was dispatched to Boston.

Jal is joined on screen by fellow former Sudanese refuge Ger Duany and British actor Arnold Oceng, who plays the group’s de facto chief tasked with reuniting the family in America. Reese Witherspoon stars as a plucky employment agency representative who helps the men adjust to modern life in their new country.

“The Good Lie’’ director Philippe Falardeau and casting director Mindy Marin originally set out on a six-month search to recruit actors of Sudanese descent for the movie, which was filmed in both South Africa and Atlanta. They ultimately cast Jal and Duany, as well as several children of the actual “lost boys and girls of Sudan’’ as younger renditions of the characters.

“Someone said this movie has not been made for 11 years, but the way I see it is that this movie has been waiting for us for 11 years,’’ said Jal over lunch with Duany and Oceng. “It’s been waiting for the right people to come together and become a family. Reese probably would not have been interested back then. It might have been somebody else, and it might not have worked.’’

While the film’s poster features Witherspoon’s face and name, “The Good Lie’’ focuses wholly on the humanitarian effort that brought thousands of young Sudanese refugees to the United States.

“She’s a legend, a mentor, a mother,’’ said Duany, who plays the optimist Jeremiah. “She’s a powerhouse who really sold the story. None of us could do that but her. The cool part of working with her is that she’s so generous, you forget she’s Reese. She just became a close friend. Not only did she take this role, but she took the time to go to the refugee camp where the story came from.’’

The film became a learning experience for both the Oscar-winning star and Oceng, who has been acting in British films and TV shows since he was 6 years old. Oceng portrays Mamere, the group’s leader, who dreams of going to medical school to become a doctor but is instead stuck stacking shelves at a grocery store.

“I didn’t know anything [about Sudan’s civil war],’’ said Oceng, who was raised by his Ugandan mother in England. “I feel ashamed that I didn’t know about it. ... My father was from South Sudan, but he passed away when I was very young. I never knew my Sudanese family, so that’s why I feel ashamed because I’m actually half Sudanese.’’

The film, out today in America, comes at a time when South Sudan has again been wracked by civil strife and “The Good Lie’’ stars are hopeful their fictionalized characters will draw international attention to violence that has killed thousands since December.

“It’s like pointing a spotlight in a dark place,’’ said Jal, who also has some of his music featured in the film. AP

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