An Oscar-nominated movie director is holding auditions in Omaha this weekend, and it’s not Alexander Payne.
But not just anyone need apply. French Canadian director Philippe Falardeau, whose 2011 movie “Monsieur Lazhar” was nominated for best foreign-language film last year, is making a movie about the Lost Boys. His audition call is specifically for members of the South Sudanese community.
Lost Boys is a name given to more than 20,000 orphaned and displaced children, left without family or homes during the second civil war in Sudan (1983-2005).
The boys were separated from their families when government troops and government-sponsored militias systematically attacked villages in Southern Sudan, killing thousands.
Many children were out in the countryside tending to cattle when the slaughter happened. They hid in the bush, traveled for years on foot in search of safety, then endured years in refugee camps. It’s estimated half of them died from starvation, dehydration, sickness, disease and attack.
In 2001, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees began resettling thousands of Lost Boys in the United States. By 2006, more than 7,000 Sudanese refugees had come to Omaha.
Lutheran Social Services, Catholic Charities, World Relief and other organizations helped in the resettlement effort. Falardeau is holding auditions in Phoenix, Des Moines, Kansas City and other cities where thousands of South Sudanese also settled. A scheduling conflict means he will not attend the Omaha auditions but view videotaped results.
In 2005, a peace agreement was signed between North and South Sudan. Many refugees are now returning to South Sudan or helping in other ways to rebuild their war-torn homeland.
Among them is Buey Ray Tut of Omaha, executive director of the well-drilling organization Aqua Africa. Providing water to villages, he said, is the foundation for development. Setting up local boards to maintain the wells provides a foundation for democracy.
“When I was a child, I hated going to the river for water,” he said last week. He now knows that surface water was a source of guinea worms, cholera and other things harmful to health and economic growth.
Tut, 26, said he may inquire about auditioning even though the cutoff age for auditions is 25 and he technically is not a Lost Boy. He came here with his parents.
“There are a lot of performance artists in the Omaha community (of Sudanese),” he said, including poets, painters and singers who were shaped by their experiences in South Sudan and the refugee camps. “I expect a lot of them to try out. People who are plugged in are enthusiastic.”
A recent report on movie industry news website thewrap.com indicated Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon is in talks to star in Falardeau’s movie, titled “The Good Lie.” The movie’s plot follows the boys from peaceful home life to separation from family to refugee camps and adjusting to resettlement.
Many films have been made about the Lost Boys, but “The Good Lie” would be the first narrative fiction movie on the topic, rather than documentary, Falardeau said.
“We need to tell the right story, not make a spectacle out of their lives,” he said last week from Atlanta, where he was scouting filming locations. “This story has a universal appeal.”
Falardeau said he was in Sudan in 1994 during the war and met people in their homes. “They made a great impression on me,” he said. When he read the script for “The Good Lie” last summer, it felt like a calling to revisit them and tell their story.
South Sudanese people, he said, have a distinct way of talking and walking that’s so specific, the real deal is better for a feeling of authenticity than any school for acting could supply. Their physical look is also distinct, he said: very tall, very thin, very dark skin with a bluish tone. A singular accent.
“But it’s what they lived through that I’m after,” he said. “They seem lit from within, a fire burning inside them that is so beautiful.”
He will center the American part of the story in Kansas City, though he’s filming in Atlanta for practical reasons.
Falardeau’s “Monsieur Lazhar” is also a movie that deals with immigrant themes. Is there a reason their struggles speak to him?
“I was just lucky to be born in Montreal,” he said. “I didn’t do anything to deserve that. Why do others deserve to be born in a difficult place?”
In his travels to more than 50 countries, Falardeau said he has often been the immigrant trying to fit in, to understand a new culture, to communicate.
“Canada, like the U.S., is a land of immigrants,” he said. “I’ve always been fascinated to see someone try to rebuild their life in a new society.”
Tut and Falardeau both said it’s important to get the story of the Lost Boys to a wider audience. History repeats itself, Falardeau said.