An aircraft engineer-turned-filmmaker, Mohamed Kordofani is the director of the first Sudanese film to make it to the Cannes Film Festival, Goodbye Julia. Showcased in Un Certain Regard, it started coming together in the years following the 2011 South Sudanese referendum, which saw the country finally gain independence from the North after a long history of civil wars and ethnic violence.
In particular, the picture centers on former singer Mona (Eiman Yousif) and young Julia (Siran Riyak), whose paths cross following the tragic demise of the latter. Set in Khartoum during the last years of united Sudan, the pair’s vicissitudes serve as a powerful metaphor for the turbulent relationships between the Northern and Southern Sudanese communities.
Projektor: You made a film that covers not just Sudanese history but very recent events as well. Why is now the right time to release it?
Mohamed Kordofani: We are living in a time when what we do still forms part of the revolution. Even this current war is a part of it.
Revolution is the biggest form of change for any community, and it doesn’t happen overnight. If you go out in the streets and you topple a dictatorship the same day, you didn’t start a revolution, you just removed a head of state, and you’ll likely replace it with another. You’ll probably experience the same things that were happening before. Real revolutions, like the French Revolution, take a long time to happen. You need to overcome different obstacles. With this current–and hopefully last–war, if we push through it, I believe we’ll evolve as people. We will become better, and so the film comes at a time when people are hoping for change.
The film comes at a time when people are hoping for change.
In terms of casting, how did you come to choose the leading actors?
Ger Duany (who plays Ager in the film) is an experienced actor. He starred alongside Reese Witherspoon in The Good Lie and Dustin Hoffmann in I Heart Huckabees and worked in Hollywood for a long time, so he knows his craft.
Nazar Gomaa (who plays Akram) is a superb actor as well. He’s had plenty of experience in TV shows and theater plays, but he’s never worked in cinema before this. He’s very passionate about it though. When I met him, he was even worried about bringing in too much “theater acting” as opposed to what I wanted, which is realism and naturalism. I’m very sad he’s not with us [at Cannes] today—he had to stay in Khartoum to protect his family.
The girls, Eiman Yousif and Siran Riak (Mona and Julia, respectively), also had no prior experience on the big screen. I found them by chance, both of them on social media. I saw Eiman in a live video playing and singing in a small cafe, and I thought, “She’s Mona!”
Yes! Luckily Eiman had at least some experience working in theater. She is a natural actress. She knows what the character demands, and she’s part of the revolution too, so she really understands the process of struggling to change.
She also had to connect with the audience in a way that they could understand what she was going through without speaking.
As for Siran, I saw her in an interview as Miss South Sudan and found she was a successful model in the Gulf region. She caught my attention because she’s of course very beautiful, but also because she has a Khartoum accent, and that [quality] wasn’t easy to find 12 years after the independence.
Did making the film help you overcome a sense of guilt, or at least helped you deal with it?
I don’t know if it helped me get over the guilt. Maybe it does because, in a way, I’m not trying to fix what already happened. What I’m trying to do is show that this is an issue that is happening again and again, because it’s still a thing in Sudan today.
And I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it, because you might as well ask: “Did I get over racism?” It’s a constant effort that needs to be made, but it’s important you check yourself from time to time. I think there’ll never be a moment where you can say, “Okay, now I’ve reached that stage. I’m happy with myself.” That never happens, but you can find yourself making fewer mistakes and heading in the right direction. This is what pushed me to write this film. Looking through the different stages of my life, I find myself completely different. Probably, in five years I’ll change again.
And I liked the idea of putting these characters where we are sitting now and letting them talk to each other. And I intentionally placed them in a morally gray area because I wanted people to see things from all perspectives. Even if you disagree with their decisions, at least you understand where they’re coming from.
What about your visual concept and working with your editor?
Well, I’m more fascinated by filmmaking than I am by cinema. What I mean by that is, I’m more fascinated by the art of making films, the craft, the process. I get goosebumps learning what went down behind the scenes and I think, “How did he do it? How did he make that scene?” Then I try to break it down and understand what goes on.
For this film, I sat with Pierre [de Villiers, Kordofani’s DoP] and had endless Zoom calls before shooting. We decided to light [Mona and Akram’s] house so that it looks like a cave. It’s a very nice house, but it has leaking water and it faces a cemetery; but it represents tradition, heritage. That’s why in one scene, Julia asks Mona why she refused to move–it didn’t seem like she liked the house too much. But she only says that Akram inherited it from his parents.
Heba [Othman, the editor] helped me more during the writing [phase] than she did in the editing room. I don’t mean to undermine her work, it’s marvelous, but I like how she’s been with us since the second draft of the script, and we only started shooting it with the tenth draft. She is somebody who really understands the power of storytelling.
This interview has been edited for clarity.