The Good Lie: Honoring the Journey of South Sudan’s Lost Boys

McDonnell

McDonnell

By Faith J.H. McDonnell –

What is most striking about the new film The Good Lie is that it’s true. Opening nationwide this Friday, October 24, after a limited opening October 3, The Good Lie faithfully recreates the 1000-mile journey of the Lost Boys[i] of Sudan. The film follows three young men from southern Sudan – Mamere, Paul, and Jeremiah – they are composite characters, but they are based upon the tens of thousands of children forced to flee when their villages are attacked during the war waged by the Government of Sudan against the southern Sudanese people in the late 1980s.

The Good Lie opens with an explanation that Sudan was fighting a war “over religion and resources.” That is as specific as the film gets about the jihad waged against African and Christian people groups of the South that resisted the regime’s imposition of Islam and Arab culture. But frequent appearances of Bibles in the film demonstrate the importance of faith. The mother of Mamere and his brothers and sister reads the Bible and sings a Dinka hymn. Many children carry Bibles as they walk towards Ethiopia in search of safety. The Word of God is a constant companion to the Lost Boys growing to adulthood in northern Kenya’s Kakuma Refugee Camp. And Bibles accompany many to their new life in America.

Documentaries such as The Lost Boys of Sudan and God Grew Tired of Us and television programs such as “60 Minutes” followed Lost Boys from dusty Kakuma camp to the United States. But The Good Lie, directed by Philippe Falardeau from a screenplay by Margaret Nagle, is the first film that places you in the beginning of their story.

Behind-the-scenes with Director Phillipe Falardeau and Kuoth Wiel on set of The Good Lie. From thegoodliemovie.com.

Behind-the-scenes with Director Phillipe Falardeau and Kuoth Wiel on set of The Good Lie. From thegoodliemovie.com.

Bahr al Ghazal is idyllic and pastoral – young Dinka boys watching herds of cattle – until thudding helicopter propellers signal the end of everything they have known. The two-pronged attack by Sudanese Government helicopter gunships and then by militia (murahaleen) on horseback is heartbreakingly authentic.

From afar the terrified boys and their sister see the galloping militia torching houses and killing everyone in sight, including their own parents. Then, in a pattern that continues with every new trauma, there is no time to mourn the dead, just time to flee. Over 26,000 Dinka and Nuer children – some as young as 4 years old – mostly boys, but also a small number of girls, began walking. They sought safety in Ethiopia, where the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), the opposition forces fighting against the Islamic regime, had their headquarters.

Thousands of children died on the two-month, 400-mile walk to Ethiopia’s refugee camps. The Good Lie is faithful to every detail revealed by real Lost Boys, once they were able to share that trauma on their own roads to healing. In the film, the children are powerfully depicted by actual southern Sudanese refugees. They lose brothers and friends to hunger, dehydration, attacks by wild animals, and attacks by Khartoum’s forces. Others drown, are eaten by crocodiles, or are picked off by Sudanese snipers while crossing the river. Sometimes survival depends upon drinking one’s own urine.

From thegoodliemovie.com.

From thegoodliemovie.com.

Mercifully, The Good Lie spares the viewer most of the horror that these children endured. It focuses tenderly on individual children – one child dies of dehydration, one child succumbs to an infection, one child crumples to the ground when shot by the Sudanese Army, etc. But each individual death represents the deaths of thousands. Falardeau gently and sorrowfully communicates the truth: only some 17,000 out of the 26,000 of the Lost Boys survived to reach Ethiopia.

The Lost Boys’ Ethiopia sojourn, from 1987-1991, is not covered in The Good Lie. Instead, the film conflates their flight from Ethiopia after the fall of President Mengistu Haile Mariam with their final walk to Kakuma. Walking another 400 miles back to southern Sudan, their number was once again drastically reduced as they crossed rivers, encountered wild animals, and were shot at by both Ethiopian and Sudanese forces. Because they could not stay in southern Sudan, still in the throes of war,[ii] they continued walking to Kenya. The Lost Boys walked over 1000 miles in all. Less than half of the original 26,000 survived to reach Kakuma.

The Good Lie picks up thirteen years later, with the surviving children at Kakuma where they are now grown. Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Ger Duany), Paul (Emmanuel Jal), and Abital (Nyakuoth Wiel) number among the 3600 chosen in a joint United States/United Nations project to come to America in 2000. Not all of the Lost Boys and Girls could come to America. One of Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital’s friends, James (Elikana Jale), faces the absence of his name from “the list” with dignity and generosity of spirit for his friends. Paul responds by throwing his best shoes to James over the fence as he boards the plane for America.

Across the country, Americans in places such as Portland, Burlington, Nashville, Jacksonville, Fargo, San Diego, Takoma, and Kansas City, where the U.S. portion of The Good Lie takes place, got to know and love the Lost Boys. Churches and civic organizations reached out to help these young men from southern Sudan settle into life in America, but, as demonstrated in The Good Lie, many Americans found their own lives so much richer because of the friendship.

In The Good Lie the resilience, loyalty, and faith of Mamere, Jeremiah, Paul, and Abital impact the lives of those they come to love, such as Carrie (Reese Witherspoon) and employment agency owner, rancher Jack (Corey Stoll). And the Sudanese young people continue to support each other, even in the worst of times, such as when Paul goes through a serious crisis of faith and when they must fight

From thegoodliemovie.com.

From thegoodliemovie.com.

bureaucracy and post 9/11 fear to bring Abital to Kansas City from Boston where she was sent from Kakuma.

The culture shock experienced by those who heard telephones ring and felt ice for the first time, discovered fast food, and learned about the independence of western women when they came to America is depicted with gentle humor in The Good Lie. But we also see through Sudanese eyes the wanton cruelty of western waste, and the loneliness of not being understood. Jeremiah quits his supermarket job when forced to throw food away rather than give it to a homeless woman. And Paul’s eagerness to be friends with his lazy co-workers sabotages the progress he has made due to his own amazing skill and leads him to both drug use and conflict with his real friends.

I have known many Mameres, Pauls, and Jeremiahs. I know “Mameres,” whose young shoulders bore the burden of responsibility far too early; who are serious, but open up like a flower to joy; who have humble and grateful hearts that appreciate all that is given to them, but don’t really understand how much they give to others. I know “Pauls,” who need love and acceptance to fill the hole that was left when everyone they loved was wrenched from them; playful and flashy on the outside, hurting and insecure on the inside; afraid that they are too broken to be fixed, but made strong again through Christ. And I know “Jeremiahs,” sweet and gentle-natured, but steeled by Holy Spirit fire; whose conversation is laced with Scripture and whose wisdom is beyond their years; who seem too good and pure for this world, and whose very presence on earth is a miracle.

In each case – be it Mameres, Pauls, or Jeremiahs – it is a miracle. It is a miracle that the Lost Boys survived, that they came to America, and that they have even been able to function, let alone thrive, considering what they went through. Over and over the Lost Boys in The Good Lie return to Jack’s ranch just to be in the familiar, healing presence of the cattle. As the three young men walk hand-in-hand towards the pasture, the film flashes back to show them walking hand-in-hand as children among their magnificent long-horned cows in Bahr al Ghazal.

Flashbacks, both joyful and sorrowful, enrich The Good Lie. They show how the past and present of these once-lost, once-boys are intertwined. The courage and love for each other that has sustained them has matured with them. And gifts of self-sacrifice, the film’s most extraordinary of which actually takes place at the same time that Jeremiah is preaching his first sermon in a Kansas City church, demonstrate the truth of the words he is speaking, that although they “have been called Lost Boys,” he does not think they are lost any longer. Neither do I. When a man shows “greater love,” and is willing to lay down his life for his brother, he is no longer lost, and he is no longer a boy.

Faith J. H. McDonnell directs the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Religious Liberty Program and Church Alliance for a New Sudan and is the author of Girl Soldier: A Story of Hope for Northern Uganda’s Children(Chosen Books, 2007).


[i] I refer mostly to the Lost Boys because they far outnumbered the Lost Girls. Sadly, most of the girls were closer to home when the militias attacked and were either killed or taken into slavery.

[ii] That war would finally end in 2005 with the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, leading to the new nation of South Sudan in 2011.

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