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The official movie poster. Source: Facebook


Goodbye Julia”, the award-winning feature film by Sudanese filmmaker Mohamed Kordofani appeared in the eyes of international cinema audiences practically out of nowhere. The film follows the story of Mona, a northern Sudanese retired singer in a tense marriage, who is wracked by guilt after covering up a murder.

 

Kordofani guides us into the heart of the multi-layered Sudanese conflict that led to the independence of South Sudan. With the hands of a master, caring for nuance and empathy, he tells the story of Mona and Julia. It captures human needs, contradictions, and tragedy without judgment, bias, stereotypes, or empty blabber to which mainstream Arabic cinema has accustomed us.


The film has already been a great success at movie theaters and international film festivals, including winning an award from the prestigious Cannes Film Festival 2023. Apart from Kordofani’s subtle and captivating storytelling, the outstanding performance of the main actors presents a new look at contemporary cinema from East Africa. A very creative soundtrack, and an international cooperation for production, cinematography, and distribution have also helped to present this movie worldwide. 


The Plot


“Goodbye Julia” opens with the camera focusing on Mona who is cutting into the layers of an onion with a big sharp knife. It is a proclamation that there will be cuts and unavoidable tears. In the mental map of most people, Sudan is a country immersed in armed conflicts, rather than the home of contemporary arthouse cinema. Yet, this movie shows that Sudan can be both. 


The film tells the story of how northern and southern Sudanese lived through the years of 2005 to 2011, leading up to the separation of the South. It tells personal stories about how the culmination of centuries-old racial discrimination of people from the South by their northern compatriots ended in explosive social and political rifts.


One of the scenes from the film featuring Mona and Julia. Source: BroadcastPro Me


A well-crafted script against this historical backdrop, the movie is also the story of Mona and Julia. Mona (Eiman Yousif) is a northern Muslim woman with a well-to-do lifestyle, who was a popular singer before her marriage. While distracted by listening to a recording in her car, she knocks a young boy but drives away in panic without helping the boy or his alarmed father Santino. Julia (Siran Riak), a poor southern Christian, is the mother of Daniel, the small boy who survived the accident, and the wife of Santino, who is callously murdered by Mona’s husband Akram (Nazar Gomaa).


Mohamed Kordofani, the Yale University Screen and discussion. Source: Mohamed Kordofani


Kordofani masterfully guides us into the heart of complex Sudanese conflicts, caring for nuance and empathy. The intimate and often calm views of the camera capture human feelings and needs, contradictions, and tragedy without judgment, stereotypes, or banalities common to mainstream Arabic cinema.


Deception, Remorse, and Guilt

The opening scene tragedy leaves Julia as a single mother trying to trace the whereabouts of her husband with no knowledge of who killed him. The circumstances sink her deeper into poverty. Meanwhile, Mona is being eaten up by remorse and guilt after causing the death of a man and covering up the murder committed by her husband. She looks for an encounter with Julia, who is selling food on the side of the road where Mona drives by. Trying to make up for Julia’s loss, Mona takes in Julia as her maid and her son Daniel, providing them not only with a comfortable shelter and space for living, but also taking care of Daniel’s education and, eventually, Julia’s school fees.


Through the bars that protect the windows of her home, Mona witnesses every day the turmoil and suffering that shook the lives of Sudanese in those times, and that would ultimately lead to the secession of the southern part. Following the death of the southern leader John Garang in a helicopter crash, violent clashes unfolded in Khartoum, getting as close as the gate of Mona’s house. She sees the rage of mobs marching to hunt and execute Southerners, decried as “slaves” and “savages”.


Behind the scenes filming of Goodbye Julia. Source ARRI


The murder of Santino by Akram is swiftly classified by a befriended police officer as a “random, unaccounted for death”, based on a false declaration by their complacent neighbor. Mona’s conversations with her husband gradually get stuck in their disagreement about how “immoral” and of “low status” the Southerners are, and why they deserve no better. Ignoring who Julia and Daniel are, besides being Southerners, Akram challenges Mona that even though she is helping a needy woman and her son, this does not prevent her from treating them as “slaves”, when she marks the plates and cups they are allowed to use with a red dot.


Confronted with her guilt and latent racism, Mona gradually takes a deep, uncompromising look into her soul and life. She eventually realizes that lies underpin her entire life like a huge, intricate maze. Isn’t she hiding an enormous lie from Julia, who has gradually become her good-hearted companion? Hasn’t she bribed a police officer so that he does not tell Akram that Julia is the widow of the man he killed? Isn’t she lying to Daniel, when he asks for an explanation why their neighbor possesses the motorbike of his disappeared father? And when she says, he bought it secondhand from some Southerner?


And isn’t she lying to herself that it was worth giving in to Akram and abstaining from singing as a price for a marriage supposed to be happy? It is the same Akram of whom she tells her mother over the phone: “He comes home when he needs to eat or to change his shirts.”


Actresses Siran Riak, Eiman Yousif, director Mohamed Kordofani, actor Ger Duany and producer Amjad Abu Alala at Cannes. Source: Andreas Rentz / Getty Images Europe


It is not obvious at what moment the falling apart of the house of cards built by Mona over several years starts. Perhaps when Mona accompanies Julia to a church for the first time in her life, feels good at that and realizes “we do not have music in mosques.” Or when she enjoys some beautiful complicit moments of sisterhood with Julia when she encourages Mona to enter a music club in disguise, to taste Aragi, a locally made alcoholic drink in a Coca-Cola bottle, and even to perform briefly on stage? Or when Julia later must protect her when Akram verifies on her phone with whom she has talked and whether they truly had been at Souk Saad Gishra?

If Kordofani has created Mona’s character as the more ambiguous and complex one, Julia’s is the more straightforward and dramatic one. She embodies the poor and oppressed Southerners, the despised people with dark skin and a disliked religion. Yet she is the one who is resilient, free-minded, and defiant. She encourages Mona to reclaim her liberty against an oppressive husband. Even when she is at the receiving end of discrimination, crime, and hatred by Northerners, Julia asserts herself against Majier (Ger Duani), a secessionist Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM) activist who shows a romantic interest in her.


   Actress Eiman Yousif. Source: Instagram/ Eiman Yousif


Unanimity in Seeking Equality


Towards the end, Julia acknowledges that she has been living in the house of her husband’s killer but does not altogether withdraw her friendship with Mona. True, she has to put up with her situation for the sake of her son’s education and a life in a decent shelter. But this is not what Majier understands when surrounded by his armed militia, pointing his gun at Akram and his family. He angrily shouts; “A girl like you, selling the murder of her husband so cheaply, does not deserve my heart.”


This scene is only one of many that tell of Kordofani’s subtle and critical look at gender relationships and inequality between men and women in Sudanese society. He shows how women are more often than not silenced, harassed, denigrated, and denied their rights by male dominant behavior across different divides - Northern/Southern, Muslim/Christian, bourgeois/lower classes. The misery inflicted by men on women feels like an underlying motif throughout the whole movie. It is shown as an inevitable experience that strikes both women in an equal manner, regardless of their ethnic, religious, and social differences or as related to the color of their skin.       


Even if taken in the context of engaged and feminist African or Arab cinema, “Goodbye Julia” is a very rare and precious voice that shows how the pangs of patriarchy put their hands on the lives of women. Julia traveling by public transport, tired and depressed, has to push off a man physically harassing her. A police officer shouted at her to cover herself when only her neck and head were to be seen. Another police officer assaults Mona to kiss her, indicating that since she bribed him to keep a secret from her husband, he considers her a ‘light girl’, one to be abused in open daylight. While taking her special northern Sudanese “incense bath”, a custom to please her husband before making love, Mona confesses to Julia; “Most men are selfish and with a heart of stone.”


The two women forge unity also when it comes to claiming their own lives in freedom and fulfillment in a kind of dissonance to the majority of their respective societies. Mona breaks free despite what people may think of her as a “divorced woman singer”. She finally is free to sing, like the Canary birds Akram had given her as a gift in a cage when she sets them free into the immensity of the sky.


Julia does not want to follow the calls of the southern separatists and calls herself a Khartoumite. Rather, she proclaims loud and proud that she prefers to live in a united Sudan at the very moment when fellow southern Sudanese line up to vote for the independence of the South from the North. Further, there is the grotesque scene of negating the talent of a woman artist when Mona, invisible like a black ghost under an abaya, niqab, and gloves, grabs a guitar and skillfully strums a few cords.


Actresses Siran Riak and Eiman Yousif at the red carpet. Source: Instagram/ Eiman Yousif


In the end, Mona manages to run free from her suffocating marriage. She confronts Akram that she has always been a stranger to him, even in the union of their bed. In a dialogue worthy of film director Agnès Varda, one of the great feminist voices in French cinema, Mona confesses calmly; “You never ask, you never knew me. If you really knew me, you would love me, perhaps. I want to live with you and talk to you without fear.”


A powerful image of the characters of Mona and Julia is shown in one of the final scenes: two women, one leaning on the other's knees, crying in silence, facing the mess at the end of the journey, like the end of an African Thelma and Louise, agonizing over each other’s losses and their sisterhood.


A Case of Hypermasculinity?


By contrast, Kordofani has painted the characters of all men, except the benevolent elderly photographer, as committing or heading towards violence. They go rampant and form deadly mobs in the street, set fire to poor people’s shacks, evict women, and push them in the back of their cars to imprison them.


At one time or another, most male characters end up with a weapon in their hand, ready to commit a crime: the neighbor who teaches Akram to shoot and puts the rifle in his hands, Akram who shoots Santino in the heart instead of merely scaring him by shooting in the air, Majier, surrounded by heavily armed Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers and even little Daniel grew up to become an adolescent with a threatening gaze. In one of the last scenes of the film, he is seen in the front seat of a military jeep, with a gun tightly held to his body, a new child soldier ready to avenge his father’s death.


Kordofani has created a powerful contemporary film putting Sudan on the map of world cinema. It will be remembered as an uncompromising confession of what happened and what can happen again. The deep cuts, wounds, and tears, people torn apart, and plenty of men and boys hugging a gun, determined to kill. “Goodbye Julia” has the feel and look of a future classic that goes beyond mainstream African or Arabic cinema and will not be forgotten for decades to come.


Mina Cherradi

Mina Cherradi is a Europe-based writer interested in literature, music, and cinema. She is also a specialist on gender in military conflict and has lived and worked extensively across the African continent, including Sudan.