Mohamed Kordofani made history when his debut feature, Goodbye Julia premiered in Un Certain Regard in May, marking the first-ever Sudanese feature to screen in Cannes. A look at the tense and violent politics of his divided nation told through the lens of a quiet domestic drama, the film won over both audiences and critics, and walked away with the section’s prestigious Freedom Award.
The film is set just before the secession of South Sudan in 2011 when Mona (Eiman Yousif), a well-off woman from the north, accidentally hits kills and kills the son of a poor southerner family with her car. The boy’s distraught father chases her back to her home where Mona’s husband — who sees all dark-skinned southerners as “savages” — shoots the man. Distraught and seeking redemption, Mona hires the man’s oblivious wife Julia (Siran Riak) as her maid.
Kordofani spoke to The News84Media from Bahrein shortly after violence again broke out in Sudan, with armed battles between rival military factions triggering another civil war that, as of this writing, shows no signs of abating.
You finished this film shortly before the recent outbreak of violence in Sudan, have you been able to return to your country since?
Everything is up in the air, nobody knows what’s going to happen. I came here [to Bahrein] to finish post-production but not the Khartoum airport is completely destroyed. I don’t know when it will come back into service.
When did you start working on this film, what was the initial idea that got you going?
I don’t know if I can put my finger on it. But I think it started when I heard about the result of the referendum [for the succession of South Sudan] in which a whopping 99 percent voted for separation. It was a moment where I really stopped and had to process what was going on. Because 99 percent, that’s not a political choice, it is something much deeper and I think it was connected to the racism that we, by we I mean the northern population, had been practicing for so long. But I didn’t start writing right away. It was a slower process of transformation. And that’s what the film speaks about, too. It’s a film about the transformation of someone who realizes that they have been unknowingly racist and want to overcome this racism. A transformation of someone who first abides by social norms and traditions who transforms into being a little bit liberated and open-minded and begins to question those traditions, which play into the institutional racism we have inherited, and things like oppression that women suffer in our society.
I went through this transformation, and that really compelled me to write something. I started writing Goodbye Julia back in 2018. Then the revolution happened and then it became more urgent to keep writing. The revolution was really inspiring and it was achieved by women. But there is a conflict in our society because even as we celebrate women and their role in the revolution, we still police their conduct. When it comes to our everyday life, nobody really wants to change anything.
Is that when you decided to make the main characters female, to tell the story from a female perspective?
I really don’t know exactly when, or why, I decided to do that. But the most influential people in my life have been women, starting with my mom. And because the story is based on transformation, I knew I wanted to the side of the oppressed, so I thought I’d better tell it from the women’s perspective. Both the women in this story suffer oppression. Mona suffers social oppression and Julia systematic racism. Both try to overcome their social norms and traditions. I actually see myself in both characters.
If I can give a bit more background, there was a big transformation in my life. I was an aircraft engineer before I switched to being a filmmaker. And this transformation changed a lot of things. Because in engineering, there is only right or wrong, there is only one or zero, and there are no gray areas in between. When I changed paths back in 2014, I started to notice everything is not just zero or one, that there is no such thing as an all-good or an all-bad character. That gray area, where you can’t really know who to empathize with, where you can’t really be sure of your own ideas, your own stance, is what interests me. I was scared to make the film because I’m not sure, in five years’ time, how I will feel about my views as shown in the movie. It took me a year of not writing, of being stagnant, to finally come to terms with the fact that this film is an honest portrayal of who I am thinking now, so I don’t think I’ll regret it in five years’ time. At least it is original and true and honest about what I thought.
Do you see Mona and Julia as complicit in the systematic racism and sexism they suffer under? Both characters try to change things but at other times they support the men who enforce the oppression.
I don’t know if they’re complicit in the sense that they intentionally know what they are doing is wrong. They are just accepting, embracing whatever comes from their ancestors. And when you don’t question that, it becomes what you are. It’s like in the film, when Julia asks Mona: ‘If you don’t move out of your house?’ and Mona says she can’t, because they inherited it. She says it reminds her husband of his father, that the house has the scent of his father. And Julia counters: You live in front of a graveyard. What I’m really trying to question here is do we have to keep everything that comes from our ancestors or can we choose what we inherit and we let go? Because this racism is part of our inheritance. It comes from the history of slavery that we had in Sudan. We cannot get past that history, and look at people with “pure African blood” as more than the slaves that their ancestors were 100 years ago. This is mind-boggling for me.
But there is more to the relationship of Northerners and Southerners than oppression. Like with what happens in Mona and Julia, its a more complicated relationship. Because we have very intimate and fond memories with people from the South. Since we put out the poster, which shows Mona resting on Julia’s lap, I’ve been getting messages and emails from Northern people talking about how they miss their friends from the South, how they had this special relationship with this person or that person and they really wish things could go back to the way they were. So this film is also a message of love to the southern people.
Was part of your reason for making the film to provide a different, and more nuanced, image of your country than gets seen on international news reports?
When you turn on the news from Sudan, all you see are burning cars and smoke coming from buildings and it doesn’t really affect you as a viewer. But if you can get a lens inside one of those houses, and see there are normal people there just trying to just get by, to live their lives, to try and become better people, normal people who suffer the same way you do, who struggle the same way you do, who have the same family and neighborhood issues, then maybe the outside world can understand us better or better empathize with what’s going on. I don’t want the world to feel pity, I think we are capable of solving our issues, but at least they can stop the meddling from outside, stop their countries from making the problem worse. There have been useful things coming from outside, like the attention George Clooney brought to the problems in Sudan, but getting attention from people on the outside can only be the start. Unless you really get the Sudanese people involved in what you’re trying to do, it’s probably pointless.
Did you shoot the entire film in Sudan?
Yes, but it was a very difficult shoot because we made the film during the military coup. People were on the streets, protesting against the military. There was a minimum of two protests a week. We’d get tear gas rolling across our set maybe three, four times a day. But we were we’ve worked under these conditions, both the Sudanese crew and people coming in from outside like, like the DOP Pierre de Villiers, the gaffer, the first AD, the sound engineer. These people came from outside and I really just have to send my love and appreciation for what they’ve done. They were very brave. Sudan is not a very stable country and for them to come all the way from their countries to shoot the film in Sudan in these circumstances is nothing less than then admirable and amazing.
Do you think your film can help the process of reconciliation between the communities of northern and southern Sudan?
I don’t know about that. I don’t think that will happen, actually. The revolution changed mentalities a lot and there are now people who want to reconcile with the Southerners. But we have the same issue with the communities in the Nuba Mountains, with those in the Blue Nile in the East. This is a recurring issue. The South is the model for the film but it’s not the only problem of its kind. I want reconciliation but we need more, we need to rebuild a new national identity, if that makes sense. Something not based on the pride of origin, not based on gender, or ethnicity, or religion, or all those things that drove us apart, but on values that we can all really share, the values that the revolution has been calling for: Freedom , justice, co-existence. These are values we can really be proud of, they are values that can bring us together. And part of that process, maybe the first part, would be reconciliation and the admission of guilt for the things that went wrong in the past.
Will you be able to show the film in Sudan?
If they just stop the bombing, we can screen the film. I’ve said this before. We don’t need a fancy cinema, I can paint a wall white and bring a projector, I can go from city to city like that and show it to people. That’s all I need.
This interview was edited for length and comprehension.
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