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‘Goodbye Julia’ – first Sudanese film at Cannes is a potent exploration of prejudice

‘Goodbye Julia’ – first Sudanese film at Cannes is a potent exploration of prejudice
Eiman Yousif (left) as Mona and Siran Riak as Julia in 'Goodbye Julia'. (Image courtesy of the European Film Festival)

Set just before South Sudan seceded from what was the largest nation in Africa, Mohamed Kordofani’s restrained drama about two women from different sides of the country demystifies the racism that still divides it.

Set in a particularly turbulent time in Sudan’s history, during the riots just before the secession of South Sudan, Mona, a Northern woman, is implicated in the death of a Southern man. Protected by her privileged place in society, she seeks to assuage her guilty conscience by hiring Julia, the man’s oblivious wife, as a maid. 

This fearful act of self-serving kindness traps both of them in an ever-growing tangled web of lies and secrets but also sets Mona on a path of ideological transformation as she reflects upon her prejudices. Eiman Yousif’s embodiment of Mona’s knotted grief, pity and kindness manifests in a spectacular standout performance.

The constant sense that Mona’s secret is destined to be discovered is only part of the thrill of this multidimensional film. Director Mohamed Kordofani’s films weigh in on the sociopolitical realities of Sudan in a personal way – the racial tensions are ever-present, and noticeable in even the smallest interactions. 

What’s the vibe?

The style and content of the film are a rare mix – different parts of the world are accustomed to different cinematic languages, but Kordofani intended Goodbye Julia to be accessible to both Sudanese audiences (which are generally partial to the razzmatazz of Hollywood and Bollywood) and film festival audiences (which prefer a slower arthouse style). 

Goodbye Julia

A scene from ‘Goodbye Julia’ by Mohamed Kordofani. (Image courtesy of the European Film Festival)

The result is a restrained drama, which is patient and gentle in style and pace, but with theatrical twists and plot points. Though the audience can feel the surprises are coming, they are refreshingly unpredictable. 

Kordofani’s films strongly express anti-xenophobic messages. His earliest film, Nyerkuk, won a host of awards on the film festival circuit, and A Tour in Love Republic was the first pro-revolution film to be broadcast on national television in Sudan. But this ideological focal point does not dominate Goodbye Julia – it explores a host of social issues in Sudanese society, providing a snapshot of the interpersonal dynamics its people grapple with in daily life.

A closer look

In the same way that a picture can speak 1,000 words, a story may capture 1,000 realities. Goodbye Julia illuminates Sudan’s sociopolitical obstacles in a fashion more relatable to foreigners than a documentary would likely be able to achieve, and since some movie-goers are resistant to documentaries, films like these are crucial in creating awareness. 

The value of a film like this for locals should also not be understated. Kordofani speaks publicly about the extent to which his politics have evolved since South Sudan seceded. Before then, being from the North, his outlook on Southerners more closely resembled Akram, a traditional, racist Arab man depicted in the film. It’s notable that the first depiction of the cultural conflict is from the perspective of Akram and Mona, a privileged Northern couple.

Read more in Daily Maverick: ‘No Simple Way Home’ – the heart story of South Sudan’s founding mother

Starting by seeing through their eyes allows someone who shares their views to reflect on their own views when they observe the way that Mona grows and Akram does not. Kordofani’s storytelling is generally wonderfully humanising of some flawed characters, which prevents it from ever feeling like propaganda. 

Siran Riak as Julia in ‘Goodbye Julia’. (Image courtesy of the European Film Festival)

Siran Riak as Julia in ‘Goodbye Julia’. (Image courtesy of the European Film Festival)

In one of the most interesting scenes in the film, Akram, a comfortably racist character, points out the internalised racism of a character who is actively trying to be better – Mona. He’s trying to convince her that the gulf is so wide and embedded in their lives that it’s futile trying to bridge it, but instead, she takes his observations as a challenge to shed her hypocrisies. It’s a clear call to action, encouraging the audience to do the same. 

It seems fitting that Mona and Julia, our two protagonists seeking to integrate from opposite sides of inequality, are women. Mona has privileges Julia has never known, but she lives an anxious, dishonest life, largely repressed under her husband’s control. Their disempowerment as women creates solidarity across enormous cultural and class lines, and seeds a friendship that provides an oasis of love and positivity in the film. Their story is about the joy of unity as much as the pain caused by division.  

The film does depict prejudice in those ugly, obvious ways the audience is familiar with, but even more impactful are the subtle moments that show how insidiously it has dug into people’s behaviours, like when Akram plays with a Southern boy but cleans his hands afterwards, or when Mona speaks about Sudanese music meaning North Sudanese music. 

Mona could be representative of any Northerner who’s sympathetic to the Southerners’ suffering. Her guilt for benefiting from their pain, her fear of retribution, her reluctant attempts to make amends without sacrificing her privilege – these are all sentiments that many people likely share, whether in a Sudanese context or not, and her phenomenal character journey is potent enough to stir the self-reflection that makes film such a powerful medium for change. DM

Goodbye Julia was the opening film of the 10th European Film Festival that began on 12 October. There are additional screenings at Ster-Kinekor Gateway in Durban on 21 October, and at the Labia Theatre in Cape Town on 22 October.

You can contact We’re Watching via [email protected]

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