Film review: The Good Lie opens the 8th Refugee Film Festival

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 June, 2015, 10:12am
UPDATED : Thursday, 18 June, 2015, 10:12am

In 1987, about 20,000 children from Sudan were orphaned by civil war. They trudged thousands of kilometres, first to Ethiopia then Kenya to try to escape death or press-ganging. More than half died before reaching the Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya.

Known as the "Lost Boys of Sudan" (mostly boys — girls were enslaved), some 4,000 eventually made it to the US with the help of the UN and NGOs, a story covered in The Good Lie. A success on the festival circuit in 2014, the film seems to have been buried by distributors, despite star power in Reese Witherspoon, big-name producers (Brian Grazer and Ron Howard), an Oscar-nominated director (Philippe Falardeau, Monsieur Lazhar) and an appealing blend of sentimentality and humour.


Showing this month in Hong Kong along with six documentaries in the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees 8th Refugee Film Festival, the film is a worthy reminder of the real human tragedies behind the faceless numbers in the news.

The story begins in 1987 as Theo and his brother Mamere look after their cows and play with friends. It isn't long before helicopters descend and the newly-orphaned kids — often children escaped because they would be away minding cattle when soldiers arrived — have to head toward the rising sun and presumed safety in Ethiopia. This section of the film is the most successful, a band of excellent child actors battling starvation, dehydration, wild animals, drowning, and soldiers amid the parched immensity of beautifully shot African landscapes.

After 13 years in Kakuma (the camp houses 179,000 today; Dadaab camp, with 350,000, is Kenya's third largest "city"), Mamere, his sister and two friends win a ticket to a new life in America, and the film switches focus to their attempts to adjust to what might as well be another planet.

Fish-out-of-water comedy, traumatic flashbacks and touching moments of reconciliation and reunion are doled out mostly with excellent balance, helped by fine performances from Witherspoon and the excellent British-African Arnold Oceng, as Mamere. His brothers, Ger Duany (pictured with Witherspoon) and Emmanuel Jal, were child soldiers in real life, making their emotional and physical scars all too genuine.

The Good Lie, June 19, 9.50pm, June 25, 7.40pm, Broadway Cinematheque, Yau Ma Tei. Opening title of the Refugee Film Festival