Goodbye Julia Director Mohamed Kordofani Talks About the Possibility of Change and Hope in This Interview

Goodbye Julia by Mohamed Kordofani is an impassioned plea for understanding and inclusion which utilises the story of Mona (Eiman Yousif) and Julia (Siran Riak) and their long relationship built out of a tragic circumstance. Beginning in 2005 and ending in 2010 it documents the period leading up to South Sudan becoming an independent country. A time when Arab and Muslim Sudanese people refused to connect with African Sudanese people. Yet a bond forged between two women has the seeds of hope. Goodbye Julia has won several prizes including the Cannes Un Certain Regard Freedom Award.

Nadine Whitney had the amazing fortune to speak to Mohamed Kordofani, now no longer living in Khartoum due to civil war.

Goodbye Julia opens in Australian cinemas from April 4, 2024 courtesy of Potential Films.

This review has been edited for clarity.

Thank you so much Mohamed for taking time to speak with me. I am aware that taking about Goodbye Julia must be very difficult considering the current situation in Khartoum and Darfur and the immense humanitarian crisis unfolding. How does it feel to know your work is out in the world but the city you filmed in is all but destroyed?

Mohamed Kordofani: Back in 2020 and Khartoum was my home. I’m working on two things at the same time you know I’m working on my company and on this new career at the same time working on on my first feature film Goodbye Julia. I managed to shoot it before the war broke out but at the same time I was devastated because all the crew and all the people who worked in the film as well as my family, thought that the war would stop you know after couple of weeks or after couple of months at most. But then time goes by you start realising that it’s not going to end, and that everything you worked for, and all this investment that you put in the to the countries are gone. Not only on the personal level but also as part of the revolution. The 2018 revolution greatly inspired writing the film.  

The hope that we were hoping to see in the news and after the revolution. I was so invested in the revolution, and I watched things collapse in real time. Yet, at the same time the film is in Cannes, and then it’s going to the BFI film festival, playing at Melbourne International Film Festival. It’s winning awards and being critically praised. I’m moving from one end of the spectrum emotionally and then to the other end within the same day sometimes. From elation to distress. It can be exhausting; you do feel happy at times, but you also feel very devastated and I cannot quite put into words how I feel.

I’m sorry if the question appeared intrusive it’s just that it’s something I’ve been wondering quite a bit about. For example I watched Bye Bye Tiberius by Lina Soualem and was going to interview her. I wonder if the area she filmed in still even exists.

It’s the state of the world at the moment that you’re looking at art and wondering is that place even there now. Works made in Kyiv and Ukraine (A House Made of Splinters or Ukraine is Not a Brothel). It would be heartbreaking for everybody whose memories, dreams, and hopes exist in a celluloid memory box. To wonder if people are alive who were filmed as recently as 2020.

MK: We were rushing the production and didn’t know it would become a memory piece. I remember realising it was. One thing that hit hard is that during one of the Q&A sessions a Sudanese woman stood up and said, “Thank you for taking the last portrait of Khartoum.” It hurt because I have captured parts of a city which simply don’t exist now. The last pictures of Khartoum as it was, because it will never be the same even if the war stopped now.

Goodbye Julia starts almost as a tale of two kitchens. We see Mona’s kitchen and then we move into Julia’s kitchen. Two women in two different domestic situations. One who is quite happy and one who is who is not. Circumstances bring them together and they end up in the same house, but not really in the same kitchen. Mona regardless of whether she believes she’s doing the right thing or not has still decided that Julia is a servant. Doing things she would not do herself. She marks crockery and cutlery for Julia and Daniel’s use. She initially won’t even touch things they have used.

As a director from an Arab background was that a deliberate choice to show the ingrained racism and bias against African Sudanese people?

MK: I have done so many interviews on Goodbye Julia and this is the first time someone has observed the kitchens. I think the relationship is attempting to show how complex the history is. So much inherited bias with the history of slave trade, and the longest civil wars in African history. Things that could not be undone during the transition to creating South Sudan.

The British colonised Sudan. The intense political situation between North and South Sudan is one of violence However, between the lines there were people who wanted to live harmoniously, yet it didn’t succeed. I wanted to explore that in and Goodbye Julia. Because despite Mona inadvertently causing the death of Julia’s husband, the two women they share a lot. And in some ways, they liberate each other because of what they share as human beings.

They are like the caged birds Akram (Nazar Gom) buys for Mona. The way you frame Mona is that she is in a cage. She is barricaded and controlled.  Mona’s cage becomes less restrictive once Julia enters the house. Mona now has a child she can nominally care for and give Akram to “father.” Yet these things come from Julia’s body. Julia does the heavy lifting in setting Mona free.

MK: The essence of the film is that they liberate one another but Mona should have admitted the truth from the very first day and it didn’t happen. It’s another way of me trying to explain the voting process after Omar al-Bashir was ousted. It was about resource control and foreign pressure more than it was about independence. The Arab people in Khartoum lived in a higher social structure but there was never really an admission of guilt. There was never real reconciliation. This is also reflected through Mona and Julia’s story and is why it will always be Julia doing the heavy lifting. The education Mona provided to Julia or to Daniel or the materialistic benefits are never seen as enough if there is no admission of guilt.

Julia makes a very strong point in the film when she’s talking to Mona about the house. Paraphrased “Why do we need to hold on to heritage? Why can’t we just choose the things that serve us?”

MK: They were talking about the house and to me the house is another metaphor. The traditions that we inherit from our ancestors, and we embrace domestically because some are beautiful. In parts the film celebrates them — the oils, the steam baths. Julia’s room is filled with vibrant African colours. Some things must be kept alive but other things must go like the curtains in Akram’s house that Mona puts up with because they belonged to her mother-in-law.

Some of these traditions hold within them ingrained racism or tribalism. There is nothing wrong with a sense of pride in being Muslim or Arabs unless that pride leads to inbuilt racism and gendered oppression. Things that really separates us instead of bringing us together should have been replaced. We must create a new national identity. I was hoping that the revolution would do that. Sudanese people being proud of our diversity, accepting and respecting difference and inclusivity. I attempted to do that in the film. Celebrating music as a universal language. Instead of trying to impose or enforce one identity one national identity on a country that has plenty of people who are not Arabs or Muslims we should have celebrated the diversity instead.

I wanted to talk to you about specifically was Daniel. You have two actors playing him because he is a small child when first appears in the film, but later is an almost teen. His attachment to the patriarchal is so strong. He can’t let go of Santino’s death and repudiates Julia later in the film. It all leads to devastating final shot. So, not only are are you looking at social and cultural and religious traditions but also patriarchal traditions on both sides.

MK: In many ways the film is about Daniel. Akram says to Daniel, “You are very quiet.” Daniel observes but says little. He is almost ignored throughout the film. But Daniel is the next generation, and I am showing war is vicious circle. That’s why in the very first think shot of the film you see a clock and the hands aren’t moving. Because it seems like ever since the independence of Sudan (from colonising empires) the same things keep repeating. We never move on or heal unless we attempt to break that cycle and see each other’s humanity. Julia is doing all she can to keep her son safe, but it just keeps repeating.

Julia at one stage says when Mona asks why she came to Khartoum that she was fleeing war. War is the one thing which has been permanent the permanent for her.

MK: I was trying to blow the whistle before the war happened. We all knew something was going to happen in a couple of months. So the world would see it but maybe it was a bit too late. You know what happened. The very same reasons that led to the war before are a fixture. Unfortunately, now we have the war, but we hoped the film would be a lesson. Now the war is in Khartoum and that never happened before. It was always in the in the periphery and that was it. The privileged people in the centre never really experienced it before. It was something that happened only somewhere very far away.

Perhaps there is a silver lining. The film says can says there are things we must learn from each other. Lack of understanding was the obstacle in the face of the revolution. If we overcome that maybe we can apply it to future so that’s a start. I think that having Goodbye Julia shown all over the world even if it can’t be shown in Sudan is still going to make people aware of the cycle and I think that that’s that’s extraordinary important.

All over the world people believe they are too enlightened now to let history continually repeat, but it does. I guess the hope is that that kindness, sanity and some kind of sorority or brotherhood prevails at some point.

MK: I think we I think we have to be hopeful, and if we lose hope, we lose life. Yes, sanity kindness humanity prevails because I would like to believe that we are all people and people and with and gentle openly kind hearts do not drive war. I think Goodbye Julia is just one method to raise awareness. Most of the people are caught in the crosshairs of conflicts which began long before they were born.

Bringing attention to what Mona did for Julia means that perhaps there won’t be barriers to education. And that Julia herself becomes an educator. We realise that probably we can be inclusive. I think the film provides the context that Mona absolutely did the wrong thing in staying silent. To stop everything from going so horribly wrong she and Arab Muslims need to tell the truth. Because if so, hopefully we can just start to heal and not be constantly divided.

Neither Eiman Yousif nor Siran Riak are professional actors. They did magnificent work.

MK: They managed to bring such incredible performance to the screen and chemistry because they became friends on set. The friendship is reflected in energy on the screen. They wanted the project to succeed. They were very responsible I send my thanks and my love through you if they ever get to read this interview. Siran Riak was moved of the war and during the preparation for Cannes we were able to get her out. Eiman Yousif was not living in Sudan anyway, she was always in Dubai, so they’re both okay. Actually, everyone who worked in the film except two or three people are out of Sudan.

I just want people to watch Goodbye Julia and open their hearts and minds to the possibility of change and hope. To repairing the damage. There are things that will never be the same — Khartoum will never be the same. But perhaps one day we can see how our differences enrich us and connect us just as much as our similarities.

Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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