Goodbye Julia Brings Sudan Front and Center

Director Mohamed Kordofani discusses how the film became a powerful exploration of injustice and reconciliation.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied

South Sudanese actress Siran Riak appears as Julia in a rare soft moment of the film Goodbye Julia. She is dressed in traditional South Sudanese fashion, with vibrant colors, ruffled shoulders and cornrowed hair.

The death of John Garang de Mabior, the South Sudanese politician and revolutionary leader, marked a profound turning point in Sudan’s history. The mysterious 2005 helicopter crash that killed Garang occurred a mere three weeks after he signed a peace deal ending the nation’s 21-year civil war and took office as Sudan’s first vice president. News of Garang’s passing was received with an uprising of rage and grief among his mostly South Sudanese followers, characterized as riots and met with brutal retaliation by the state, leading to 130 deaths. Less than six years later, the Southerners voted overwhelmingly for sovereignty, with 99% of voters choosing to secede from the North.

It is in this febrile, pivotal period in Sudanese history that aviation-engineer-turned-film-director Mohamed Kordofani sets his debut feature, Goodbye Julia, which explores the relationship between North and South Sudanese through the arc of a friendship between two women. Mona is a light-skinned, Arab Sudanese woman trapped in a house melancholic with secrets. When she invites Julia — a self-assured, dark-skinned Southerner— to live in her home, the hopeful breath of friendship hangs in the air. That is, until we see Mona folded over in the brown kitchen, painting each item of Julia’s crockery with a dot of red nail polish, to mark the dishware Julia and her son are allowed to use in the household. Apartheid or Jim Crow laws might not exist in this Sudan, but in Julia’s world, they play out all the same.

The film opens with the announcement of Garang’s death and the uprising that followed. Driving along back roads to avoid crowds, Mona, a Northern middle-class housewife, strikes a young Southern boy. When his father, Santino, runs out to confront her, Mona panics, driving off and calling her husband, Akram. A Southerner is chasing me,” she says, knowing full well his prejudice would displace any need for explanation. Akram shoots Santino without exchanging a word.

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Wracked with guilt, Mona hires Santino’s widow as a live-in maid, inviting Julia and her son into their home. But the secret is an everpresent time bomb underneath their friendship’s surface, exploding into view just as the election splits the country in two.

Goodbye Julia made history not only by being the first Sudanese feature to screen at the Cannes Film Festival, but also by receiving the Cannes Freedom Prize. Variety remarked that the film unfolds like a morality thriller.” It tackles hefty topics with confidence and a graceful sensitivity, exploring Sudan’s systemic racism, political and ethnic divisions, and gendered family dynamics through a galloping plot. Elevating the film from polemic is Kordofani’s focus on the domestic — on the intimate relationships between husband and wife, lady and maid, Northerner and Southerner, home life and street life. These dynamics are fraught with tension, and Kordofani draws from his own experiences growing up in Khartoum to render them honestly.

The film helped me understand myself,” Kordofani says in our interview, and you can infer his hope is that audiences might understand themselves better too. Goodbye Julia acts as a mirror, inviting audiences to reflect on how the choices of everyday people are echoes and refractions of those made by society as a whole.

The success of writer-director Mohamed Kordofani’s first feature, Goodbye Julia, came as a surprise even to him. Now he has his sights set on the future, which he hopes includes a peaceful Sudan.

This film cannot be extracted from the context of its setting or its moment in history. As Kordofani notes himself, much of the response to the film has been steeped in despair regarding the current war ravaging Sudan, which has resulted in at least 15,550 deaths since it began in April 2023 (although the true number is likely much higher).

The war has made the audience more receptive to the film,” Kordofani tells In These Times. He initially expected backlash from Sudanese audiences as they reacted to being perceived and critiqued, but audiences instead have been reflective, nostalgic, more accepting of self-criticism.” A bittersweet surprise.

Kordofani spoke with In These Times about racial injustice within African societies, art as a means of reconciliation and the unique challenges that emerged from creating a centrally Sudanese film.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Congratulations on all the success that Goodbye Julia has enjoyed, mashallah! Tell me, how was the seed of Goodbye Julia planted? What was so impactful about the time when South Sudan voted for sovereignty from the North?

Mohamed Kordofani: The vote was shocking; 99% was very shocking for me. I didn’t think it would be this much — especially because it was monitored by international observers. This was a proper vote. It wasn’t a fake election like that of [former President] Omar al-Bashir. This was different. It was kind of like, wow.

It was a pivotal time. There was the death of John Garang and angry riots that followed, then the retaliation by the Northerners, then the referendum itself. It explains a lot about our history. In 20, 30, 40 years from now, you’ll have people wondering what happened. How did Sudan go from being the biggest country in Africa to separating? Yes, they will find out about the war and the news reports, but they won’t find anything from the homes, or anything happening at the social level. I felt responsibility as a witness to document this, and this is where art comes in.

You’ve talked in the past about the wasted opportunity” between 2005, when the North and South signed the peace agreement, and 2011, when the referendum was held. Why did you decide to set Goodbye Julia during that time? What should have happened, and what didn’t?

Kordofani: We should have had a process of reconciliation. Now that 50 years of war had finished, I thought in this five- or six-year transition, before the Southerners voted, maybe we should have done something. At least admit guilt, admit wrongdoing, admit the atrocities, then maybe apologize. Instead, we settled for wealth and power sharing, and this material compensation. That’s what the film is about. If Mona had admitted guilt in the first place, we wouldn’t have had the drama, and Mona also compensates Julia with money. I thought that was not enough — and it wouldn’t have been enough for them to change the vote.

You’re referring to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which brought an end to the civil war between the North and the South, and included the sharing of oil revenues and a reconciliation process which critics say was not respected. What are the unique challenges of discussing anti-Blackness and racial injustice and the need for reconciliation within African societies?

Kordofani: The biggest challenge is that many non-Sudanese people don’t understand it. I remember the first time I pitched Goodbye Julia. I was in a little town in Portugal called Espinho. I prepared myself very well because I don’t do well with public speaking, and this was the very first time I had ever pitched in public. When I pitched the story, there was just awkward silence. After a moment, one of the judges raised their hand and said, I don’t understand. You’re Black, aren’t you? … And the Southerners are also Black?” They didn’t quite understand what we meant by racism. I cracked a joke: If this film was a comedy, we would call it Fifty Shades of Black.” They laughed, and we won an award that day.

It’s funny: When you’re in it, you don’t think of it as Black versus Black, you think of it as Arab versus African, or whatever delusion we live in. I was brought up in Sudan. For us, it was about race, ethnicity, Arab, Black, African … I only came to understand this [difficulty of communicating racism within African societies] after I wrote the film, meeting white people and Europeans.

It affected the way I cast. I ended up casting a little bit of a difference in skin tone, so it was more obvious for people looking from the outside. It took me a while to accept the thought of casting people who were fair-skinned for Northerners and darker-skinned for Southerners, to make the distinction clear. Although we have people from the North who are darker than people from the South, I realized it would be counterintuitive to put that in the film — the additional complexity would require a lot of explanation which I didn’t need to add for people to understand the story.

How did Sudan go from being the biggest country in Africa to separating? Yes, they will find out about the war and the news reports, but they won’t find anything from the homes, or anything happening at the social level. I felt responsibility as a witness to document this, and this is where art comes in.

How has making this film changed you, or challenged your own prejudice?

Kordofani: I realized that I had that racism in me, probably because it’s in a lot of people around me. It was a conscious decision to make this film and force myself to always double-check myself. You have to make a conscious effort to overcome these inherited ideas and thoughts. Right now I am much better than I used to be 10, 15 years ago. I notice myself more, and put extra effort into not treating people differently because of their race, religion and gender. Goodbye Julia isn’t only about race — it’s about many things — but they all are prejudices based on difference, and these are things I try to not do at all now. The film helped me in that way.

It also helped me discover myself. The writing process is therapy for me. You end up knowing that you are writing about your own fears and your own issues and your own secrets that you sometimes don’t even know about yourself. The film helped me understand myself. It also helped me appreciate people, to be honest. The crew that worked with me, the dedication that they had for the project emotionally touched me in ways I never expected.

How would you say the racism in a place like Sudan differs from the racism of, say, Europe? How much is class intertwined in these dynamics?

Kordofani: I don’t think it differs. It is some sort of twisted and sick way for communities to survive. It’s an instinct gone wrong. I think it’s the same everywhere. Definitely class and racism are intertwined in Sudan and similar countries, because you have a war that lasts a long time. Those impacted by the war, like the IDPs [internally displaced people], suffer because they only get minimum-wage jobs, and then you have a class issue added to the racism. Sometimes they fuel each other to the point where you don’t know which is which.

There is a lot of moral gray in the film. It feels like you’ve taken pains to ensure there are no villains,” only normal people who make mistakes.” Why was that important to you, and what were ways you brought that out in the filmmaking process?

Kordofani: I think that’s what life is. There is no 100% good, no 100% evil. We all have that in us. We all have the good and the bad and the evil and the ugly and the kind. If you want to talk about reconciliation, the first step is understanding one another. Understanding why we do the things we do, why the other person is doing what they’re doing. I wanted to challenge and polarize audiences, and make them side with different characters in the film yet understand what is happening with the other character and why they are making those decisions. Maybe, in doing so, reconciliation becomes easier. If you look at life the same way you look at the film, maybe things become easier for you. What you can’t forgive or understand becomes easier once you become willing to see things through the other person’s perspective.

Did you feel like, at any point, you really wanted to say this choice is bad,” or take a moral stance — especially when characters are openly racist or anti-Black?

Kordofani: It wasn’t very hard to stop myself from judging my characters because a lot of people in my family — and even myself — carry this kind of racism. I’m sure everyone in Sudan has someone in their family, or in their immediate circle, who is openly racist. We know these are not evil people — maybe they are racist, but they are not evil people. By knowing these people, you are more understanding. The way I see it, they are a product of their own communities, even a victim of their communities. Maybe they were not exposed enough, or they didn’t think enough. Sometimes I think racism is a defense mechanism in a way; people who are oppressed try to oppress others. It doesn’t necessarily mean a person is entirely evil.

What’s unique about Sudanese culture in general is the crossfade between the Arab and the African. The thing we try to avoid the most is actually what is special about us. I was in Nairobi recently and noticed we share so much with the African world that we don’t even know. We tend to want to belong to the Northern part of Africa and the Middle East, but the truth of the matter is our food, the way we dress, the way our markets look, even our music and the way we behave sometimes, it looks so much like Central Africa and Eastern Africa, and we just don’t notice.

What were the difficulties in getting a Sudanese film made and distributed? Was it mostly about the finances, or about political and social instability?

Kordofani: There are so many difficulties. Funding is of course a big part of it, because there is no local funding. But you can’t even go the investor route, because there are no theaters in Sudan. Even if you make a good commercial film, it’s going to be hard to sell it in the country. So it’s always a problem financing a film in Sudan. There’s also the infrastructure you need for filmmaking: actors, makeup, set design, hair, wardrobe, all of the different departments — editing, coloring, sound design — it’s a whole industry, it’s a pipeline, and you need all the gears that make the machine work. That doesn’t exist in Sudan. So you have to improvise sometimes; you have to start from scratch other times; you have to do some of it outside Sudan. In a way, it’s fun, because there is no clear path and you have to find your way, but it’s also hectic, and it takes longer than in other countries. Then, of course, the political situation and the turmoil in the country also makes it really hard. But that’s also part of the fun! For me, it was always a fun process, doing something that hasn’t been done. It was challenging, and challenging is nice.

What has been the most surprising outcome for you since the film’s release?

Kordofani: Winning in Cannes was definitely a big surprise. I wanted to get into Cannes, but I didn’t think I would win. Also, Lupita Nyong’o became an executive producer on the film! We were also awarded The Jean Renoir Prize. But overall, I never imagined this much success.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is a Sudanese immigrant author, screenwriter, social advocate and founder of eye​son​sudan​.net. Her five books include the essay collection Talking About A Revolution (Penguin Random House).

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