TIFF 2014 Lookahead: A world premiere for an ex-Sudanese child soldier

Art imitates life for Toronto's Emmanuel Jal in the buzzy TIFF film The Good Lie

TORONTO — By the time he was nine, Emmanuel Jal knew how to fire a gun and go onto a battlefield, a young recruit on the front lines of a bloody conflict.

Decades removed from his life as a child soldier in Sudan’s civil war, memories of the harrowing ordeal remain fresh for the 34-year-old Toronto-based musician, whose mother was killed by government forces. It’s a painful past he revisits while portraying a Sudanese refugee in The Good Lie.

“There are some quiet flashbacks, certain scenes that take you back to how life was then. Those are the slightly difficult parts,” Jal said in a recent phone interview.

“Then you come back and remember that you’re in the present.”

Helmed by Canadian director Philippe Falardeau, The Good Lie will have its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sept. 7. The story is a fictionalized account of Sudan’s Lost Boys, documenting the arduous journey of children who travelled for countless kilometres in unforgiving conditions to seek refuge from the conflict.

Jal — who hails from South Sudan — portrays Paul, part of a tight-knit group given the chance of a fresh start as they migrate from a Kenyan refugee camp to the U.S. An employment agency counsellor (Reese Witherspoon) enlisted to help them find jobs forges an unlikely bond with the newcomers and winds up taking them under her wing.

“I think it’s going to create conscious awakening,” Jal said of the film. “It’s a way that makes even the work of any person who has suffered easier because human beings, we are the same all over the world. We empathize about other people’s pain. … When somebody’s situation has hit you hard, you don’t think twice — you act.”

The childhood struggles of the Lost Boys depicted in The Good Lie bear similarities to Jal’s own life

Jal’s father sent him to Ethiopia with the promise of education looming in the neighbouring nation. His lengthy journey proved treacherous.

“A lot of kids died of starvation on the way. Some died of dehydration. Some were eaten by wild animals,” recalled Jal, who was the subject of the 2008 documentary War Child and a book of the same name. “Crossing the rivers was also difficult because we had hippos that don’t eat people but they would just smash kids, and crocodiles, too, were ambushing us to eat us.”

Jal eventually ended up being conscripted into service as a child soldier with Sudan People’s Liberation Army. He was fuelled by memories of his village burning and family members claimed by the war to endure the challenging training process.

“I didn’t know what the war was about. I was still a kid. I fought for the wrong reasons.”

He later joined others who plotted their escape from the front lines, a journey that bore grim similarities to his initial trek to Ethiopia with many dying along the way. Jal became so consumed by hunger he even contemplated cannibalism.

Upon arrival in the Sudanese town of Waat, he met British aid worker Emma McCune whom Jal said risked her life smuggling him into Kenya.

“(She) put me in school. I was wearing women’s clothes because there was no clothes for me to wear,” Jal recalled of McCune who died in a car accident in Nairobi in 1993.

“I was wearing her trousers. They were too big for me so we had to take a belt of hers and make many holes so that it could tighten (around) me. And I had to wear her shoes … so I wore women’s boots as well. I didn’t know the difference,” he added with a chuckle.

Rather than being consumed by the tragedy which marks his past, Jal has forged ahead and found both a career and creative outlet in music.

In 2005, his first album Gua (“peace” in his native Nuer tongue) saw the title track catapult to the top of the charts in Kenya, earning the young performer a spot in the Live 8 concert in the U.K. In 2008, he was introduced by Peter Gabriel prior to taking the stage at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebrations in London, with the music icon saying Jal had “the potential of a young Bob Marley.”

“I was doing it for fun because it kept me busy from the nightmares. So music became my therapy,” said the acclaimed hip-hop artist who has collaborated and performed alongside artists including Gabriel and Grammy-winning R&B stars Alicia Keys and Joss Stone.

Two songs from Jal’s new album The Key, due out on Sept. 9, will also be heard on The Good Lie soundtrack: Scars with award-winning Canadian songbird Nelly Furtado and We Fall, featuring fellow hip-hop artist McKenzie Eddy. This fall, he’ll embark on a tour of North America and the U.K.

“My weapon now is my mic. It’s my music. It’s more powerful than an AK-47,” said Jal.

“And what is my war? What am I fighting for? Peace. And what is peace but justice, equality and freedom for all. Anybody who is oppressing anybody is an enemy for peace.”