“I explained to them that you have to go out in the country a bit if you want to see, like, monkeys just running around,” he said.
The trip in the summer of 2013 still provided plenty of opportunity for Okwar and Keji Jale to learn about their Sudanese heritage in a starring role. Both students in the Platte County R-3 District, Okwar and Keji visited the African continent for the first time to film their parts in “The Good Lie” — a major motion picture starring award-winning actress Reese Witherspoon set for nationwide release Oct. 3.
The wholly American children were given a unique glimpse into a struggle foreign to them but very real to their Sudanese parents, Elikana and Della.
“It meant more to me because my parents went through the same thing,” said Keji (prounounced kay-jee), an eighth grader at Barry School, “and they’re always telling me stories about how hard it was and how upsetting it was to see family members dying. It made me have that real connection with my parents more.” *** “The Good Lie” tells a fictional story based on real events surrounding The Lost Boys of Sudan, a well-documented group of immigrants who arrived in the United States from a war-torn region in the early 2000s. In the winter of 2012, Elikana took his six children for movie auditions in Kansas City. Producers of “The Good Lie” went on an international search, looking for natives or those of direct Sudanese descent for roles in the movie. Keji cut her hair short right before her audition, a serendipitous fact that helped her land the part of young Abital because she looked similar to actress Kuoth Wiel, who portrayed the older version of the character.
Elikana ended up with a pair of minor roles, too.
Father and daughter headed out to Atlanta to start learning the script and rehearsals, while Okwar and his other siblings did not make the cut. Sitting at home “bummed out,” Okwar received a call and an invitation to audition for the part of young Theo, which he earned, allowing him to join his other family members in production.
“It’s also good to be on set with your brother because it’s your brother,” Keji said.
Okwar and Keji played the youthful versions of characters who walked many miles and survived harsh conditions to seek a better life outside of the civil unrest in Sudan. They were transformed for the part in the countryside of South Africa — a process that included dirt in the hair for Keji, which didn’t seem natural to the middle school athlete.
Elikana didn’t have to pretend while acting out scenes that evoked very real memories and even offered his insight into authenticity when the film crew asked.
“I was moved to tears because that is exactly what happened and is happening as we speak,” Elikana said. “It’s true events, true things that are happening, and we were acting it.”
Elikana was born into the first Sudanese Civil War, which raged from approximately 1955-1972, but recalls fleeing with his family at the age of 2 or 3 to Uganda. He made the trip to one of the countries on Sudan’s southern border on his mom’s back as she trekked the miles.
Eventually, the family returned but sought out a more remote village in southern Sudan.
War broke out again in 1983, and Elikana found himself in a Ugandan refugee camp but never truly felt safe, often seeing others abducted and taken back across the border to fight. Many of his family members were directly involved in the fighting. He lost cousins and brothers to war, but one of his brothers convinced him not to return to Sudan.
Elikana eventually smuggled himself into Kenya and another refugee camp.
“Throughout the years as my kids grow up, we have always been telling them, and I brought some photos for them to see what it looked like,” Elikana said. “They have a good idea of the life and how I grew up.”
Elikana and Della — born in Ethiopia to Sudanese parents — met in that Kenyan refugee camp in 1991 and were married the following year. The first of their six children, a son named Loku, was born there in January of 1994, and the family immigrated to the United States and relocated to Houston, Texas five months later.
The Jales were able to have minimal contact with those back home, although Elikana’s parents eventually immigrated as well and moved with them to Kansas City in 2004. The past lived on through oral history
“When we were younger, he used to tell us a lot of stories about how he would run away from war,” said Okwar, a sophomore at Platte County High School. “He’s gotten into a lot of details and how so many people were suffering and so many bodies were everywhere and how people would go missing and you’d find them the next day hanging from trees. Awful stuff.”
“I like this school district. It’s actually a really calm and cool school,” Keji said of Platte County, the home district for all six Jale children since Elikana decided to leave behind potential negative influences in Houston.
The Jales have all been a part of “the Barry Family” at the district’s southern campus as residents in the more suburban part of Kansas City.
Incidentally, the writers and producers decided to make Kansas City the setting for the second part of the movie, which details immigration for the grown-up Sudanese characters introduced earlier.
Carrie — Witherspoon’s character — helps them through the adjustment process.
Elikana, Okwar and Keji were among more than 1,500 to audition for film parts. Once selected, the school district worked with the family for absences accrued during rehearsals and filming, which lasted about a month and a half.
“One of the most delightful families I have ever dealt with,” said Barry assistant principal Dr. Jeff Adams.
Okwar and Keji participated in schooling on set — in addition to learning to speak their lines in Dinka, a language neither of their parents use — and even Elikana needed time to study during that period. Currently an employee of the Kansas City Public Works Department, he was working on his master’s degree in public administration, which he has now completed in hopes of someday working for the government and specializing in foreign relations.
The hard work became reality about a month ago during a special screening of “The Good Lie” in Olathe, Kan. The family also went to a showing recently in Nashville, Tenn., and the local release, held Sept. 22 at AMC 30 in Olathe — both offering a chance to appear with co-stars on a red carpet.
“When I saw myself and my brother, I couldn’t stop laughing because I was like, ‘This is so real. I can see myself on a big screen,’” Keji said.
Many of the Jales fellow students were aware of their roles in the movie.
The schools announced their involvement publicly, but those came almost two years ago now. Recently, Adams attended a showing of Dolphin Tale 2 and received a pleasant surprise during the previews.
“I had no idea (“The Good Lie”) was even out yet, and the preview came on and I looked at my daughter and said, ‘I had a kid in that movie; we’re going to see it,’” he said. “And it does look like a very good movie, so yes, we’ll go see it.”
Adams said Barry School hopes to work out a way for at least some of the students to view the movie and learn about another culture — and more about their unique classmates who now have imdb.com pages.
A three-sport athlete with some background in performance arts, Keji wouldn’t mind pursuing more roles in the future. Okwar said he never expected to be into acting, much less land a spot in a major movie alongside an Oscar winning actress, but enjoyed the experience enough that he wouldn’t mind another chance.
But the experiences for Okwar and Keji go well beyond ideas of potential fame and fortune. They gained a deeper understanding of their family and its heritage.
“I’m really going to take a lot from the culture and all that,” Okwar said. “It really awakened a lot of people’s memories watching the movie, so I’m really going to take all the people’s faces and how they felt about the movie (with me).”