October 16, 2014
The Good Lie is not merely a great movie, it’s also a beautiful movie. What can you say about a movie where the scenes depicted in the closing credits are more powerful than most whole movies from the last decade?
The Good Lie, released in October, 2014 in the United States, eloquently shows the story of children of different ages fleeing violent conflict in Sudan and finding safety in a refugee camp in Kenya, and thereafter in the United States. Impressively, though a big-budget, polished film, the key actors are actually all Sudanese refugees who lived the experience.
The second half of the film focuses on the real challenges of resettlement in the US, acclimation hurdles both amusing and harsh. Four refugees in particular are tracked over journey of discovery to the prospective homes in the mysterious US mid-west. Each of these protagonists struggles with their own demons in merging old and new work and life styles. Mamere and Abital are unforgettable.
The film hits the key points about famine, hunger, and emergencies in poor countries. The tone and notes are true. South Sudan continues to have disaster-level malnutrition rates: life threatening rates among children of 27% in several regions, according to 2014 surveys by the US Government.
They get the details right, yet never in a garish or melodramatic way. It properly calls attention to the key killers in emergencies: respiratory infection, dehydration, malnutrition. The story is fair and honest about death, about the causes of death, and the great uncertainties that displaced persons face at every step of their trek. South Sudan, where half the movie is set, has faced recurring famines in recent decades, a priority for humanitarian agencies. The American public has spent billions of dollars of humanitarian assistance, largely in food and health to Sudan since the early 1980’s, a fact few in America know.
The best thing about The Good Lie is what it does not do. It does not digress into the stories of drunken aid worker misfits, cowboys and would-be saviors. It does not force fit gratuitous explosions, chase scenes, sex or invented melodrama. The story is squarely on the affected population, here, a group of cattle herding rural poor Sudanese struggling to learn how to cope in a world they never made, frequently with the gentle humor of everyday existence.
It is arguably the best film about a third-world humanitarian disaster, in this case covering events from the 1980s through 2003. Most successful movies about humanitarian crises in developing countries rely on the view of an American or other outsider (e.g. white) expatriate, as in The Killing Fields, Missing, the Year of Living Dangerously, and Salvador, which remain among the better movies about real crises. To its great credit, The Good Lie turns this formula upside down, telling the story from the point of view of Sudanese themselves There are some important American roles but the complex story arcs belong to the Sudanese both in their adventures in Sudan and in America.
Over 25,000 Sudanese youth, primarily boys, fled southern Sudan in the 1980s and the term “Lost Boys” was applied, borrowing from the story of Peter Pan. (Coincidentally, an earlier refugee program to bring Cuban 14,000 Cuban children to the US was known as “operation Peter Pan”). There are story arcs within story arcs, involving the roles of Ethiopia, Kenya, embassies, our international refugee protections system, resettlement nonprofits in the US and the dilemmas of fitting in, in Kansas City. Each element was portrayed accurately. The film exposes many simple truths. Not all humans are born with cellphones. Cities are strange and artificial things that 99% of humanity’s ancestors could never have recognized. The very young have always died at disproportionately high rates, but particularly in crises such as southern Sudan’s.
Making reference to Huck’s protection of the slave, Jim, in Twain’s Huckleberry Fin, the “good lie” is about lying for unselfish reasons, as when protecting someone else even at one’s peril. This occurs in several ways throughout the film.
Credit to the director, Philippe Falardeau, and writer, Margaret Nagle, for keeping the story well-researched to give an accurate lesson relevant to anyone interested in learning about humanitarian relief. And credit as well to Opie, also known as Ron Howard, for bringing his customary balanced and high quality producer values to this project. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”, the apt African Proverb quoted at the film’s close.
Some Africans fear that The Good Lie may create a stereotype image that all Africans are like these Sudanese; a danger from any film about people from just one country. Still, most of Africa remains rural and poor, not unlike those depicted in this film.
Reality in South Sudan:
Since the events of the film occurred, South Sudan earned its independence, in 2011, after many years of US mediation. Tragically, the new country of South Sudan exploded a year ago with civil war. Receiving little international press, it has been one of the world’s worst crises of the past year. In the scant news coverage, lost is anything about the daily life of the rural, cattle-herding people of South Sudan, for which this film is a necessary corrective. The Good Lie helps to show the lives of regular Sudanese.
Most of The Good Lie’s historical background began in the 1980s. By the late 1990s, Christian groups tried to buy many Sudanese from slavery, but this only created a market and incentives for slave-taking. An Underground Railroad to help fleeing Sudanese refugees also included Cairo, Egypt. Several hundred thousand Southern Sudanese also fled to northern Uganda. Uganda repaid a debt from when Ugandans refugees were given safe harbor in Sudan in the early 1980s.
A Realistic Depiction of Settlement in the U.S
Most of The Good Lie features the resettlement of refugees into communities across the United States. Sudanese were helped to create new lives in Phoenix, Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Chicago, Salt Lake, Houston, Dallas, San Diego, Kansas City, Richmond, Nashville and Louisville, with funding support from the US Department of State’s refugee bureau, working with a constellation of non-profits. Today in Kansas City, the lead resettlement charity is the Jewish Vocational Service, working in concert with Catholic Charities of Central and Northern Missouri, and the International Institute, though in past years it was Kansas City-based Don Bosco with the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, based in Arlington, Virginia. Other charity agencies heavily involved in similar resettlement in other parts of the United States include Lutheran World Services, American Refugee Committee, World Relief, and the International Rescue Committee, which is depicted in the film. Most local assistance groups in the US are faith-based, as the film connotes.
Viewers of this film may be unfamiliar with America’s world-leading refugee programs. It is a bittersweet how few of the target audience in the US remember that the United States has always been a land of refugees, castoffs, misfits, wanderers, and oppressed, looking for a new start. It had been our defining characteristic for many years, before we became comfortable and forgot our roots. For generations America, to its credit, has been one of the most generous countries in the world, alongside Canada, in accepting and fostering refugees (fleeing persecution) into long-term resettlement programs, with funding through a network of non-profits who deserve great credit for their work. But ultimately the greatest share depends on the communities, the people and families, hosting, employing and accepting the new immigrants. For many Sudanese, Somalis, Vietnamese, Cambodians, and others, America remains the land of tolerance and refuge.
It’s not surprising that most movie reviewers did not know what to say about the film, as they could not know whether or not the depictions in the film were accurate, fair, or fantasy or invented by a screenwriter inventing stories. So it’s unfortunate that most reviewers referred to it as a “feel good movie”, “heart-warming” (yet “not mawkish”) but did not give it the very high rating it deserves. From a fundamental human point of view and the challenge for the director to fairly show the real world of hunger and crises, the movie was the best film in many years. This is a tough, often harsh film, through which human heart shines through.
In sum, the film serves a wonderful springboard for discussions and reflection about America’s role in the wider world. It’s also a balanced antidote against much of the shallow and stereotyped depictions of humanitarian crises or aid.
It’s always revealing about how critics react to films, imposing their prior categories or frames of reference into each new film. Of course, The Good Lie does not fit in their pre-established types. The scenes in The Good Lie about not knowing what a phone is, how our faucets work, or how odd it is for a 30 year old woman to be unmarried were viewed by some critics as forced sources of comedy. They were, however, spot on, and more poignant about what we in America take for granted, the innocence we have lost over the last century, and our inability to empathize with much of the rest of the world, or our own forefathers. The theme of forefathers, by the way, plays a critical and poignant role in the movie, worth paying attention to. Reviewers referred to the film’s perpetrators of violence as “rebels” or “insurgents”, which was telling about how Americans have become conditioned only in recent years into the false dichotomy that all good is in government and all bad is among rebels. Though the film did not explain this, the antagonists were armed and fighting on behalf of the central Sudanese national government. They attacked to put down a rebellion, akin to Hessian mercenaries supporting the British troops attacking American rebels in the 1770s.
To read recent food and nutrition information in southern Sudan, see the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2014 report on malnutrition: http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm6332a5.htm The New York Times review, which concludes “For all its softening, “The Good Lie,… has a core of decency, humanity and good will that feels authentic. You won’t curse yourself for occasionally tearing up.” See: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/03/movies/in-the-good-lie-sudanese-refugees-adjust-to-america.html?_r=0
Steve Hansch is a Hunger Notes editor and a member of the World Hunger Education Service Board of Directors.