Good gracious, did I like The Good Lie better than I thought I would after seeing the trailer. My suspicion was that Reese Witherspoon would get her life changed in heartwarming, gently comical fashion by a trio of Sudanese refugees and maybe find love with manly rancher Corey Stoll at the end of it all. (Sigh.)
I am happy to report that I was almost entirely mistaken. Witherspoon is a significant character, but The Good Lie absolutely belongs to those refugees from war-torn Sudan: Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and Abital (Kuoth Wiel, the group’s lone female). First, it recounts the physical ordeal they endure as children, fleeing on foot before the soldiers destroyed their village and killed everyone they knew. Then it digs into the interior struggle they face as adults, fortunate to have made it to America but still haunted by what happened in the world they left behind.
I enjoyed my interview with Oceng, Wiel, and screenwriter Margaret Nagle. Here’s a little of it.
Matthew Lickona: At one point, Paul tells Mamere, “You’re not my chief anymore.” Would Paul ever have been able to say that if they hadn’t made it out of the Sudanese refugee camp?
Arnold Oceng: You mean, would he have had the courage?
ML: Or even the context. Would it occur to him that that was a thing a person could say?
AO: Personally, I don’t think he would have.
Margaret Nagle: I think he would have. I think it’s Paul growing as an individual. They’re all growing in their individual identities after coming to America. Their identities are being challenged, because American culture is all about the individual and not the group.
AO: And the thing that made them so strong and able to pull through in Africa was being together.
ML: Assimilation stories can be heartbreaking because of what gets lost.
MN: But there’s a point where it’s actually good for Paul to find his own strength and power, because what happened in Africa has been eating at him. He needed to say what he did in order to survive. His survival in America actually depends on his being able to separate. He needs to fix something in his life, to have the power to fix it. These people who have been torn apart by war, they’ve faced things that they’re just powerless to change, things that eat them alive.
Kuoth Wiel: But also, doing what he does enables him to see that it’s not only about him — that he’s also affecting his siblings.
ML: You actually did the walk from Sudan to Ethiopia as a child. Can you talk about preparing for the role? I mean, in some sense, it’s not just preparing for a role.
KW: I talked to a lot of women who were separated from their families when they came to America — a lot of people made sacrifices, sent their children and stayed behind. But I drew a lot from my mother as well; she was the one who got us through everything. I remember getting lost from my family for a little bit. And though I was fortunate enough to have a parent with me, there were still moments where I felt like an orphan, like everything was against me and all I could do was survive. But when you’re a child, you don’t think about it as survival. You just do what you have to do to get to the next day, and that’s that. Finally, I felt there was a responsibility: Abital is the only Sudanese woman in the story, the only [female] narrative.
MN: That’s partly because there were fewer girls who escaped: the boys would be watching the cattle, away from the village. That’s why they survived and the girls didn’t. Abital plays dead; that’s why she survives. But even in the refugee camps, the girls would be kidnapped or taken as slaves.
KW: There’s a lot of trouble with rape in the camps, because you’re with people who are not your family. For the girls, if you’re not there with someone to defend you — they go through a lot of trauma.
MN: I didn’t really feel I could do justice to the girls’ story; it’s a very deep thing to open up. The day they would show up on a list to be flown to Kansas City, they would be kidnapped and buried alive so they could be sold. Abital had her brothers with her; that’s how she survived.
ML: Arnold, your mother fled Africa for the U.K. when you were just two. But your father was murdered in Africa. Can you talk about preparing your character, looking back to a world that’s somewhat foreign and yet still connected to you?
AO: It was a personal journey. There was a connection, but it got lost while I was growing up. My background is a refugee background, and I am a child of war, but the U.K. was where I grew up. I don’t want to preach, but I felt like God wanted me to do this role, you know? It brought me closer to my dad’s culture, and I also get to honor my mom. I remembered the things that she went through, and I put those experiences into Mamere. I did a lot of research, but most of it came from being on set with Kuoth, Emmanuel, and Ger, hearing their stories. It wasn’t easy for them to open up — Emmanuel and Ger were child soldiers — but we formed a bond eventually.
ML: I have to ask, would they really have laughed like that at a joke like, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”
MN: They did. That was their favorite joke — all the Lost Boys in Missouri. I met, I don’t know, a couple of thousand.
AO: As an actor, when I got the script, I’d be reading those scenes, and I’d be, like, “Hold on. Would they really?” I sometimes felt like I was mocking, doing my people an injustice. “Am I being too silly? Should I say something?” But, no. Margaret had done the research. It was the truth.
MN: If they hadn’t done it, I wouldn’t have put it in there. I had these tape recordings — in the refugee camp, the elders in the tribe had a tape recorder. They recorded lectures for the boys to take to America, to listen to and remember who they were. In the first draft of the script, I had Paul sitting down and listening to his tape when he’s at his breaking point. They all went, “No one’s going to believe that.”
KW: South Sudan resisted colonization.
MN: The men from the village, they had never seen an airplane. When their village was attacked, they took out their spears to fight back.
ML: While we’re on the subject of cultural differences: this film contained some very sincere expressions of religious faith. I found them striking because they came in the midst of horror, the kind of horror that might well lead someone to say, “See? Faith is impossible in the midst of such horror.”
KW: My parents were very strong in faith. A lot of Sudanese people are, and even Africans in general. Even before Christianity arrived, we believed there was a God; I think that made it easier to accept Christianity. It validated that belief. You go through suffering, but then you come out of it and you move on to the next day. You always have the hope that things will be better. After something like that, you can only have optimism. And when things are better, you feel better because you know that it’s not just you who is making the path; there’s also some type of higher being. When you’re displaced, you have nothing at all. But if you have faith, you bring that with you. It gives you meaning, and it gives you purpose for your life.
AO: It gives you hope.