I remember when they arrived, with little more than the clothes on their backs.
This is depicted sweetly in the new film, The Good Lie, opening October 3, when employment counselor Carrie (Reese Witherspoon) asks, “Did your luggage come down the chute?” The three new African arrivals each holds up a small plastic bag containing his meager belongings. One prized possession, the Bible that many of these young men clutched to their chests as they walked into American airports and their new lives, is also visible throughout The Good Lie.
The Good Lie is about the Sudanese “Lost Boys” who in 2000-2001 were brought to America from the dusty Kenyan refugee camp where they had lived for a decade. As the director of the Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Church Alliance for a New Sudan, I met many newly-arrived Lost Boys in Washington, Nashville, Dallas, and Kansas City – where The Good Lie takes place.
But the Lost Boys’ life in the United States, or even in Kakuma Refugee Camp, did not begin until they had taken a 1,000 mile trek. The Lost Boys and a small number of “Lost Girls” began their journey from safety and joy to unimaginable danger and horror when the Sudanese government (Khartoum) waged genocidal war against the people of south Sudan who resisted its forced imposition of Arab culture and of Islam.
Prime Minister Sadiq al-Mahdi employed and armed “Baggara,” nomadic Arab Sudanese tribes, to bolster Sudan’s armed forces by attacking civilians. In Day of Devastation, Day of Contentment: The History of the Sudanese Church Across 2000 Years, Roland Werner, William Anderson, and Andrew Wheeler write that in 1987 and 1988 there “was a bloodbath across wide areas of Bahr al Ghazal. Countless villages were destroyed and their populations massacred. Crops were destroyed, cattle killed or looted, young children and women taken off as slaves.”
The two-pronged attack by helicopter gunships and Baggara on horseback is heartbreakingly authentic in The Good Lie. It is painful to watch the opening thirty minutes of the film, beginning with an idyllic pastoral scene – young Dinka boys watching herds of cattle – until thudding helicopter propellers signal the end of everything they have known. But it is necessary in order to understand what the Sudanese government – ideological twin of ISIS – did to its own people. And it makes clear why the southern Sudanese voted for independence. Other films about the Lost Boys have only referred back to these events, not shown them. Kudos to The Good Lie for including the start of the story.
Over 26,000 Dinka and Nuer children – some as young as 4 years old – mostly boys, but also a small number of girls, began a dazed, then determined journey to find safety. The 6-10 week walk towards Ethiopia’s refugee camps is powerfully depicted by the child actors in The Good Lie. Thousands of south Sudanese children died en route. The film is faithful to every detail of this trek. The children, Theo (Okwar Jale), Mamere (Peterdeng Mongok), Jeremiah (Thon Kueth), Paul (Deng Ajuet), and Abital (Keji Jale), lose brothers and friends (including Theo) first to hunger, dehydration, attacks by wild animals, and attacks by Khartoum’s forces. Others drown or are eaten by crocodiles crossing the river.
The sojourn of the approximately 17,000 surviving children in Ethiopia from 1987 until 1991, when the fall of President Mengistu forced them again to flee back to southern Sudan and then on to Kakuma, is not covered by The Good Lie. But the effect of that time on the Lost Boys is depicted, particularly on the adult Jeremiah (Ger Duany), who is shown as an evangelist at Kakuma. This realistic detail in the film honors Lost Boys who maintained their faith in a God of love and goodness in spite of the hellish conditions they endured.
Both the “intense military training” of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), and “daily immersion at school and in church in the narrative and the images of the Bible” were strong influences in Ethiopia. Many of the Lost Boys became Christian leaders there. Day of Devastation, Day of Contentment reveals that in 1988 when British Minister for Overseas Development, Chris Patten, visited the camp, he “was moved to tears as Sudanese school boys sang a song they had composed themselves based on Isaiah 9: 2.”
While, sadly, some boys have not yet found healing from the horrible trauma they suffered – an experience alluded to in Paul (Emmanuel Jal) in The Good Lie – those who found a healing relationship with Christ saw themselves as “a chosen generation.” Even those who entered the SPLA as soldiers brought “a Christian presence,” including Bible study, prayer meetings, and Sunday worship into its ranks. Many Lost Boys became pastors in various denominations. And in 2010, The Rev. Abraham Nhial Yel was the first former Lost Boy to be consecrated as a bishop in the Episcopal Church of Sudan (ECS).
The Good Lie picks up when the surviving children are in Kakuma, where they are now grown. Mamere (Arnold Oceng), Jeremiah (Duany), Paul (Jal), and Abital (Kuoth Wiel) number among the 3600 who have been chosen to come to America. The heartbreaking truth is that the lists of those going to America posted every day at Kakuma could not include everyone. There were more separations, more goodbyes, and some Lost Boys and Girls continued to live in limbo at Kakuma. But those who came to America began a whole new journey.
Across the country, from Portland, Maine to San Diego, California, Americans got to know the Lost Boys and were blessed by the relationship. Many churches and civic organizations reached out to help these young men from southern Sudan settle into life in America, but Americans ended up finding their own lives so much richer because of their 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 (Witherspoon) and ranch and business owner 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 bureaucracy and post 9/11 fear to bring Abital from Boston where she was sent from Kakuma.
The culture shock experienced by Lost Boys 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 the wanton cruelty of western waste and the loneliness of not being understood through Sudanese eyes. Jeremiah quits his supermarket job when forced by the owner to throw away food rather than give it to the poor. And Paul’s eagerness to gain the approval and friendship of his far-less ambitious and skilled co-workers leads him to drug use and conflict with the other Lost Boys.
Time and again the Lost Boys in The Good Lie return to Jack’s ranch just to be in the familiar presence of cattle. As the three young men walk hand in hand towards the pasture, the film flashes back to show them as children among the magnificent long-horned cows they cared for in Sudan. Flashbacks of both joy and sorrow enrich the film and emphasize how the past and present of these once-lost boys is intertwined.
Why is the film called “The Good Lie”? You will have to see it yourself for the answer. But I promise you that the answer to that question – as well as many other parts of this wonderful, inspiring film – will bring tears to your eyes and ensure that The Good Lie remains in your thoughts and your spirit for a long time.
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).