Meet the Real-Life 'Lost Boys' of Sudan In The Good Lie
10/03/2014 AT 08:30 AM EDT
The drama, inspired by true events, recounts Sudan's second civil war and the stories of a few of the thousands of children it orphaned and displaced, who became known as the "Lost Boys."
The Good Lie follows four refugees (played by Arnold Oceng, 28, Ger Duany, 35, Emmanuel Jal, 34, and Kuoth Wiel, 25) as they flee soldiers, walk hundreds of miles to a refugee camp and eventually relocate to the United States, where they struggle to reconcile their tragic pasts with a new life with the help of a get-it-done employment counselor (Witherspoon).
For Duany and Jal, who are real-life "Lost Boys," the movie took on extra-special meaning. PEOPLE spoke with the stars after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere.
"This is my story. This is Ger's story. I'm acting myself in the movie," says Jal, who fled South Sudan in 1993. "It's an opportunity to broaden our voices."
Jal was forced to become a child soldier before escaping to Nairobi, Kenya, where he made a life for himself as a rapper, eventually moving to London.
"The war has ripped apart my family: My mom was claimed by the war, all my uncles except two, my brothers and sisters were scattered. I have still have scars of the war," Jal continues. "People only know the physical scars, but war can rob people's souls. They don't know the internal scars that take a lifetime to heal."
Both Jal and Duany say the film was an outlet to help them reconcile. "It's an opportunity for me to heal," says Duany. The model and actor, who had a role in I Heart Huckabees, spent four years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia and also fought as a child soldier. In 1994, Duany relocated to Des Moines, Iowa, as a refugee.
Both admit it was difficult filming – and then watching – the movie. "I was very emotional with this movie," Duany says. "But we have to be strong; we have to educate the world."
Adds Jal: "It's hard. Especially the beginning of the movie – it just takes me back. I didn't want to cry, but sometimes watching those scenes was just too much for me. What happens in the movie is the experience of any person who calls themselves a child soldier [from Sudan] ... but it's a form of therapy to actually act in the movie."
They also expressed excitement over Witherspoon's involvement in the project, noting her A-list status is sure to draw even more attention to the issue.
"She's wonderful. To me, she's a mentor, she's a teacher, she's a mother, and she became a sister to us," Duany says. "She's down to earth. Working with her is very easy – you forget you're working with Reese Witherspoon."
Both are hopeful the film will shine a light on their home country, where the violence continues.
"It's about children who exceed the human strength they thought they had," says Duany. "And I think that's the story of the Lost Boys. When times are hard, you can pull strength you didn't know you had from somewhere."
"What I found really inspiring is the humanity in the movie," Jal adds. "It shows human beings wanting to help each other in crisis."
The Good Lie hits theaters Friday.
For more on the inspiring cast, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday