Khartoum-set drama Goodbye Julia will make history in Cannes this year as the first Sudanese film to play in the festival across its 76 editions.
Director Mohamed Kordofani belongs to a wave of filmmakers that emerged in the wake of Sudan’s 2019 revolution, ending the 30-year rule of dictator Omar al-Bashir.
Efforts to build a civil democracy have since stalled following a military coup in October 2021 led by General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman al-Burhani, although pro-democracy activists had continued to protest until recently.
The rift between al-Burhani and rival General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo has dealt a fresh blow as their respective forces clash in Khartoum, forcing hundreds of thousands of people to flee in recent weeks
Goodbye Julia is not focused on Sudan’s recent history, but rather on events leading up to the 2011 South Sudan Independence referendum, in which 99% of the Southerners polled voted in favor of the region seceding from the north.
The vote followed decades of conflict between the suppressed Black mainly Christian population of the south and the ruling Arab Muslim population of the north.
A dozen years later, Kordofani explores the roots of the schism through the tale of a singer from the north (Mona) who tries to make amends for her role in the killing of a man from the south by hiring his widow as a maid (Julia) and paying for the education of her son, without revealing her connection to the crime. Watch the trailer here
Kordofani talked to Deadline about the making of the film and his hopes for the work ahead of its Cannes world premiere in Un Certain Regard.
DEADLINE: What drew you to making a film about this particular episode in Sudan’s history?
MOHAMED KORDOFANI: It was shocking to me that a whole nation would want to secede from you. It was obvious that it was nothing to do with wealth sharing or politics, it was basically racism that we don’t like to admit but it’s a reality.
These people felt like second-class citizens for 50 years. I also felt responsible for that vote because I reviewed my history and realized that I was part of this racist system. I didn’t know any Southern people. Although there were millions in Khartoum, the only one I knew was a maid.
This is not just a north and south issue. It’s an issue that’s all over Sudan. What’s happened with the South is a model. It’s going to repeat itself in Darfur and the Blue Nile, unless the people, not the government, the people start this movement to reconcile. The film is basically inspired by the steps of reconciliation.
DEADLINE: Where does the 2019 revolution fit into this situation, if at all?
KORDOFANI: Although the outcome now doesn’t seem like a good thing, it is. The revolution changed the mentality of the people, their hearts, and their souls. I think it’s the perfect time for this film because people are more accepting of these things. The war is something else. I don’t know how this will translate with what’s going on now, but I think the film is still urgent and relevant and that people need to see it.
DEADLINE: Does it hurt that South Sudan left the north?
KORDOFANI: It’s a mixed feeling because right now I’m pro-secession. It’s the right thing for the Southerners. At the same time, it breaks my heart because this is part of my country that’s gone.
Separation is a theme of the film. Everybody separates at the end. Akram separates his wife. Mona separates from Julia. Julia separates from her son, and the country separates. This separation is what frightens me. The only way to fight the separation is an admission of guilt and reconciliation and to try to work things out.
DEADLINE: Given the long-running tensions between people in the north and south, was it difficult to get people from the south to join the cast and crew?
KORDOFANI: All the cast playing southerners are southerners. Most are living in Khartoum apart from the main ones. Ger Duanry, who plays Majier, the SPLM (Sudan People’s Liberation Movement) officer, he is a professional actor in the Us who has worked with Reese Witherspoon. He thought I was kidding when I called him up. Who would make a film in Sudan and try to get an actor from Hollywood? There was some convincing to do. I showed him the look book and he read the script and he finally felt like it was something real and agreed to do it.
Siran Riak, who plays Julia, is a model and former Miss Sudan who lives in Dubai. I saw her in an interview and thought she was perfect for the role. She lived 14 years of her life Khartoum before heading to Uganda and then Dubai, so her accent was very Khartoum-ish which fits with the character..
DEADLINE: How did Ger Duanry find it returning to Sudan for the shoot?
KORDOFANI: His story is similar to the story in the film. Luckily, his family didn’t die in reality, but they had to flee their home town for Ethiopia and then when war broke out in Ethiopia, they had to run back to South Sudan. He was recruited as a child soldier himself, ended up serving for a year or two, and then he fled again.
Because of his films like The Good Lie, he superstar in South Sudan. Whenever we’d go to an open location, people would come to take selfies with him.
DEADLINE: How did you cast Eiman Yousif in the role of Mona?
KORDOFANI: I must have auditioned one hundred girls and I didn’t quite find what I was looking for. I was scrolling on Facebook when I saw this live performance from a small coffee shop. Eiman was singing. She had exactly what I wanted for Mona. The same look, the way she talks and that sad default face. I found someone I knew in the audience and texted saying, “Who is singing?”
DEADLINE: You shot the film against the backdrop of the pro-democracy protests which kept going until the outbreak of fighting in Khartoum. How was that?
KORDOFANI: We had to stop the shoot many times because teargas would come inside the set and Eiman has asthma. Over the 45 days we were shooting, maybe for 30, we had teargas somewhere around us and protests and police. That was normal. The protests were going on, but there was no bombing. We can work in difficult situations, but not with bombing.
DEADLINE: What’s Your Next Project?
KORDOFANI: I started a company in Sudan two years ago called Klozium Studios. The word comes from Colosseum in Rome, but that’s how we pronounce it in Sudan. The company actually executed Goodbye Julia. It was the team’s first time fiction film, and they did an amazing job.
I invested in this company. I wanted it to grow. My plan was to expand the team and make more films, not necessarily directed by me. Now, with the war, everybody has fled, all 18 of them. Nobody’s in Khartoum. Getting people back again, it’s going to be difficult. If they stop bombing, we wouldn’t mind going back
DEADLINE: What do you think the future holds for Sudan and its fledgeling filmmaking community?
KORDOFANI: If I believe in anything it’s in the resilience of the Sudanese people. I’ve never seen such resilience in my life. No matter what happens, no matter how long it takes this war, I know that the people will fight back. And what happened in the revolution will not allow another dictatorship to rule. I am optimistic. I’m heartbroken and depressed at the moment because everything that we’ve done and worked on looks like it’s collapsing but in the longer term, I’m optimistic.
DEADLINE: It’s fantastic that the film is going to screen in Cannes, but you ultimately made it for a Sudanese audience. Do you think you will get to screen it back home?
KORDOFANI: If they just stop this bombing. I’m going to go back and I’ll screen the film in a very rudimental way. We have cinemas that have been deserted for years. I’m just going to paint the wall white and get a projector and a sound system, and I’m going to screen the film. I going to go from one town to another, screening the film. This is the mission and I know it can be done.