Director Mohamed Kordofani on the ‘Systematic Racism’ Depicted in ‘Goodbye Julia,’ Sudan’s First Film at Cannes

Sudanese director Mohamed Kordofani will soon be in Cannes with “Goodbye Julia,” a drama that he says reflects the “systematic racism” that led to the secession of South Sudan in 2011 and is, albeit indirectly, closely connected with the conflict that erupted in the country in April.

The powerful film, which is premiering in Un Certain Regard, marks the first Sudanese feature to bow from the Croisette. But there is an even greater historic significance to “Goodbye Julia,” in which two women – one from the North, the other from the South – are brought together by fate in a complex relationship that attempts to reconcile differences between northern and southern Sudanese communities. It’s the hope that “it can be the start of a movement for reconciliation between all the Sudanese people,” Kordofani says.

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Produced by fellow Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala — director of “You Will Die at 20,” which became Sudan’s first Oscar submission in 2020 — “Goodbye Julia” stars Eiman Yousif; supermodel Siran Riak, a former Miss South Sudan; Nazar Goma and Germany Duany. Mad Solutions is handling international sales.

Siran Riak in Goodbye Julia/Courtesy Mad Solutions
Siran Riak in Goodbye Julia/Courtesy Mad Solutions

Kordofani, from Bahrein, spoke to Variety about the relevance of this film and the hope that, after Cannes, “Goodbye Julia” will be seen in his war-torn country.

Obviously, this is a timely film, but the situation in Sudan is complicated. “Goodbye Julia” reflects the effect of the struggle between secessionist fighters in the South and the government in Khartoum in the North that has consumed Sudan for decades, claiming millions of lives. Can you help me connect it with the current conflict between factions loyal to two rival generals?

The secession of South Sudan in my view happened because of the systematic racism and the social racism that was applied from most Northern Arabs, governments and people toward the Southerners. And this has been the case throughout the history of Sudan. Tribalism has always been the motivation for all the decisions and all the politics in the country.

What’s happening now has nothing to do with racism when it comes to the current fighting. But [racism] has something to do with the inception of the warring militia [Sudan’s army and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces which together toppled a civilian government in an October 2021 coup and recently started fighting each other]. So I know people will try to establish a relation between what’s happening now and what happened during the secession of the South. But you have to look only at the history. Not at the current fighting. I’m against both factions, by the way. I’m against the army, because the army is still controlled by the Islamists who were protecting and Omar al-Bashir [the long-ruling Islamist autocrat who was toppled in a popular uprising in 2019] back then. And I’m against the militia who actually make a living by sending troops to Yemen or Libya as just mercenaries. So these guys are just fighting to preserve their own interest in the region.

In very reductive terms, to me “Goodbye Julia” is the story of a disconnect. A disconnect and the perpetuation of conflict. What moved you to want to tell this specific story?

I think that initially what drove me to write the film was my guilt. The guilt I felt when I heard the result of the separation referendum in 2011, which was that almost 99% of the Southerners said they don’t want to be united with the North. And for me, this result is by no means a political decision. It is quite obviously due to the racism. And when I looked at myself, before I blamed the government or anything, I found that I actually didn’t know any Southerners, although I lived in Khartoum all my life. And there are more than two or three million Southerners there. The only ones I knew were domestic workers. They came and worked for my mother, for my father. You’ve seen the film, everything in the film is actually inspired by my parents and what I’ve seen in my house.

And the problem is that we didn’t think anything was wrong with what was happening. Only after I became an adult I started to review these things and recall them, and I thought: “what the fuck were we doing?” And to this day, I think most of the Northerners are in denial of their racism. They’re not bad people. My mom is not a bad person. My father is not a bad person, but they grew in a system that they inherited from their ancestors. When the revolution broke out in 2018 for me the first thing we had to do is to create a new national identity and build a nation that is based on values, not on tribe. I mean you can be proud of wanting to be free. You can be proud of coexistence. You can be proud of other values, that are not based on race or gender. Not of things that drive people apart, instead of uniting them. So yeah, this basically was the motivation for making this film.

Now that there’s been this latest burst of violence, what do you think the prospects are in Sudan?

I think the fighting will continue. I don’t think it’s going to stop. And if I can predict again, I think Darfur will separate [Darfur has been a battleground between the army and the paramilitary RSF since the latest conflict began]. The militia is a very tribalistic militia, and it comes only from Darfur. So these guys eventually are going to withdraw back to Darfur, and they’re going to have power over that war and eventually want to secede again. And unless us, civilians, call for removal of this racism, of tribalism, of all the things that really drove us apart, this fighting is going to continue forever. And this is what the film is saying, basically. We have to reconcile as people, as societies. We have to admit our mistakes and promise not to make them again. And this is really how I wrote the film. How I took these steps of reconciliation. So that’s what I hope. We don’t care what the military does; they can fight forever if they want. But if we unite as people, maybe we can stop the war because no military can fight without some support from the people.

What are your hopes of being able to show this film in your country?

I’m still tied to my country, because I have a company there and I have to go back. I have to make it work again, somehow. So I am hoping that the war lets up just a little bit, so that we are able to work. We are used to working in tough conditions. We’ve been working under the military coup, we worked during the revolution. We can work when things are messed up, but not this messed up. Not when there is bombing and stuff. So if the war just reduces a little bit, we can work.

We had plans to revive all cinemas that had been shut down by the Islamists and we got support from NGOs and, actually, support from the government itself to do so. So we will do a very rudimental thing. We will just get a projector and a sound system and just use the same old chairs and the same old structure of these buildings and just paint the wall again for the screen. And that’s it. That’s really how I want to screen this film. I want to go out of Khartoum, go to Kosti, go to Darfur, go to all these places and just revive cinemas with very small budgets and just screen the film. So let’s hope the bombings stop. I think maybe they will stop, though the war will not end, if that makes sense.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Goodbye Julia/Courtesy Mad Solutions
Goodbye Julia/Courtesy Mad Solutions

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