TV Interview - Margaret Nagle, Arnold Oceng, and Kuoth Wiel discuss 'The Good Lie'
The film's creator and actors share their personal connections to this inspiring story
Since 1983, thousands of children have fled the war-torn country of Sudan. They are known as the Lost Boys. Ranging from toddlers to young adults, the children walk hundreds of miles to refugee camps in bordering countries. A lucky few resettled in the United States and their journey is the subject of the feature film, The Good Lie. Based on actual events, the story revolves around Mamere (Arnold Oceng) and his kinsmen as they flee to seek a new start in America. Reese Witherspoon has top billing in the film, but the true stars are the actors portraying the Lost Boys. Each has a connection to Sudan; some are real-life refugees.
Oceng was raised in London and knew very little of his Sudanese father. His on-screen tribal sister Abital, played by newcomer Kuoth Wiel is a native of Sudan who grew up in an Ethiopian refugee camp before resettling in Minneapolis, Minn. On a recent press tour, Creative Loafing spoke with the film’s screenwriter Margaret Nagle ("Boardwalk Empire," "Red Band Society"), Oceng, and Wiel about the challenges of making the film and the Good Lie Fund, a project raising money to aid Sudanese refugee camps in Africa.
Once this film comes out people may see you as the new face of the issue in Sudan. How do you feel about this responsibility?
Arnold Oceng: The main idea of this film is awareness and letting people know about this issue. To be honest I didn’t know. Growing up in London, call it ignorance but I was totally unaware. Now that we are involved in the film, it's our responsibility that we tell the story correctly and from now on, we're ambassadors everywhere we go. We have to keep promoting the film and the Good Lie Fund as well. It should evoke an emotion that makes you want to help.
Kuoth, in a recent panel discussion you shared your brother was a Lost Boy who passed in Sudan.
Kuoth Wiel: When I immigrated to the U.S., I had a brother who was a Lost Boy. He eventually found his way to Kenya and immigrated to Minnesota. While in Ethiopia at a refugee camp we were told someone was looking for us. My mother didn't even know he was alive. I met him for the first time there. In 2009, he went back to visit Sudan and he was killed. We still don’t know today what happened. It was hard for me to do this film because I had a lot of anger built up about Sudan. In 2011, even though we were celebrating our country’s independence, I was still angry about what Sudan had taken away from me.
How do you cope with that?
KW: I dedicated the film to him and all the people I lost in my life because of this war. I had to take out my own selfish feelings about it. We are telling our story, and now the world gets to see.
Margaret, it took 11 years to get this film made, that is quite a journey in itself.
Margaret Nagle: It started shooting ten years to the day I got the job. I pitched the script to producer Robert Newmyer who produced Training Day. He’s an awesome producer but died at age 48, so the studio put it in turnaround. Studios don’t know there is a rule with the Writer’s Guild that states five years after the date you last wrote on your screenplay you can go in and get it out legally for an 18 month free option. I got "Boardwalk Empire" and all these things from this piece of writing as a sample. I had six months left, so I got it on the desk of producer Molly Smith (The Blind Side). Molly’s father adopted a lost boy at their church in Memphis. She read the script and said, “My brother is a Lost Boy, I’ll make this movie for my brother!”
Arnold, this seemed like an emotional journey you had to go on to shoot this film.
AO: For me, Mamere was tiring at times. He goes through so many emotions. He matures in the film and the guilt from his childhood just kills him. He can’t bear the sacrifices his brother made for him and Paul (Emmanuel Jal) won’t let him forget. He Paul keeps chipping away at him daily to the point he has to make a decision ... and that’s why its called “The Good Lie,” its a sacrifice. Playing Mamere was one of the best characters I’ve played and I thrived on it — I loved it. Some scenes are so emotional that we all just cried at times. That’s never happened to me before on a film set so it was difficult, but I loved it.
Margaret, The Good Lie and your new show, "Red Band Society" tackle some hard issues. Why do you find yourself gravitating towards these stories?
MN: Well they say you have to write what you know and my life has been very complicated. My older brother was in a car accident when he was very little and it severed his brain stem. He’s a spastic paraplegic and I shared a room with him growing up. That really impacted my life and the way I view the world — how I view empathy and struggle. With these kids in particular, at a very young age you’re being imparted these huge survival lessons. We have this image of this fantasy childhood where everything is so pure and so sacred, but childhood is really complicated.
When I was presented the materials for "Red Band" which is a Spanish series we made for an American format, I said I’d like to shed light on this world. With this story The Good Lie I just felt so many things about my own brothers and our commitment to survive our situation. The story of Sudan needs to be known — and it's still going on. There are Lost Boys sitting in these camps and they can’t get out. We are in a position to do something to shed light.
Kuoth, this was your first film, was the experience what you thought it would be?
KW: No, but in a good way — a positive way. I learned a lot about commitment and professionalism. I watched other actors and I learned a lot about myself as a South Sudanese person and my responsibility to the story. I’m not just a character in the movie, I’m also a person who went through this war and now I can contribute. Because of this movie I feel I have more power to do so and more say. I’m very privileged to have that opportunity.
MN: With the Good Lie Fund, we’ll be able to do a lot of things. That was always my dream so we can help people sobs. I’m so happy the film got made, but we’ve got a job to do. We had a screening in Washington D.C., and John McCain and Nancy Pelosi were there and I thought, if we could just drop it for a minute, America does best when it comes together and I feel that’s something we’ve really lost touch with.