Mohamed Kordofani’s debut feature Goodbye Julia is set in the years before the 2011 South Sudan referendum, which resulted in the country’s independence from greater Sudan. Specifically, the film begins in 2005 and zooms in on two women from the nation’s capital Khartoum: Mona (Eiman Yousif) and Julia (Siran Riyak). Mona is a former singer who gave up her greatest passion to comply with her strict but wealthy husband, Akram (Nazar Goma). They’re both part of the Northern Arabic-speaking elite and, as such, own a large house and enjoy a lifestyle well above the means of the Southern Black community living across the country. There, in contrast, live young Julia and her husband, who are struggling to get by and figure out ways to feed their son Daniel. They don’t even own a house but live in a sort of hut bordering one of Karthoum’s residential districts.
In the first few minutes of the film, we see Mona and Akram share a meal in their mansion. Despite the nice polishes, we notice a leak on the roof as water drips into a carefully placed bucket. It’s one of the film’s many metaphors for the country’s collapse. Later on, an old painting is removed and a caged canary is set free—obvious but effective symbolic staging choices that point to the characters’ longing to be free.
Back in the mansion, tension builds slowly, then all of a sudden, when the couple hears gunshots and screams outside the house. The Southerners are on a violent rampage and the Northerners don’t hesitate to fire back.
One of the first of many turning points to connect Mona to Julia is a tragic one; a driving accident sees Mona crash into Julia and her son with her car. Instead of owning up to her mistake, Mona runs away, frightened, but she’s chased down by Julia’s husband. Mona calls Akram up and only tells him that “a Southerner” is pursuing her, and not much else. When they reach Mona’s gated house, Akram greets them with a gun. He asks Julia’s husband not to move. The husband remains silent but takes a step forward, so Akram shoots him dead.
Consumed with guilt, Mona hunts Julia down. She then hires her as her new maid, inviting both Julia and her son to move in at her place. An unlikely and complicated bond forms, filled as it is with both love and lies.
Kordofani’s script and direction manage to build a strong empathetic bond with all the characters involved. They are all victims of each other’s prejudices, after all, and live with lies and secrets and, for the most part, refuse to be in the other’s shoes. Their innocence has long been gone, but there is a naivety to them too; they can hardly grasp the harm they cause to one another. This complexity is perhaps best embodied by Akram, a hardworking man’s man who doesn’t believe women should have a role outside of marriage, but who also wants what’s best for his ambitious wife. Despite his best efforts, he rarely realizes, if at all, how much pain and frustration his blindness is causing.
The film may be grounded in Sudanese realities–culture, religion, and gender divides abound–but Kordofani also touches upon universal themes, as he does with the characterization of Akram. Family, grief, and social inequities are explored with adequate depth.
On a technical note, the film’s cinematography, courtesy of South African DoP Pierre de Villiers, is gorgeous, but perhaps a bit too clean and bright at times. There is a sense that the film was made to look linear and accessible to the widest audience possible.
But ultimately, this does little to diminish Goodbye Julia’s powerful message. It’s an engaging feature that bodes well for Kordofani’s future. Even though it adopts a rather conventional narrative and curious aesthetic choices, it knows how to tell a global audience the specific pains and struggles of a fractured nation.
On April 15, an armed conflict between rival factions of Sudan’s military government erupted, and clashes broke out in several cities nationwide, causing at least 1,800 victims and over 5,100 injured. It’s a recent story that sadly did not travel too far outside of the region, but Kordofani’s film did, drawing new eyes to both Sudan’s past and present. And it’s likely to continue doing that, seeing as it made history for being not just the first-ever Sudanese film to participate at Cannes, but also the first to win an award, the Freedom Prize, at that.
While much is yet to be solved in this troubled part of the world, Kordofani’s very humane film reminds us how reconciliation and reciprocal understanding are essential to stop violence and heal deep wounds.