An intimate Sudanese social portrait: “Goodbye Julia”
28 / 3 / 2024

The Sudanese fiction film “Goodbye Julia” explores the social dynamics of Sudan's North-South divide through the story of two women.

We met with director Mohamed Kordofani and producer Amjad Abu Alala to delve into the intricacies of the film, its international recognition, and what this means for the future of Sudanese cinema.

About the project
Wracked by guilt after covering up this murder, Mona — a northern Sudanese retired singer in a tense marriage — tries to make amends by taking in the deceased's southern Sudanese widow, Julia, and her son, Daniel, into her home. Unable to confess her transgressions to Julia, Mona decides to leave the past behind and adjust to a new status quo, unaware that the country's turmoil may find its way into her home and put her face to face with her sins.

Interview with Filmmaker Mohamed Kordofani, collected by Rana Kobeissi via zoom

Rana Kobeissi: Can you talk about why you chose to address the conflict in Sudan that ultimately led to the separation of South Sudan through the fictionalized relationship between two women in Goodbye Julia? What did fiction allow you to do in looking at the situation in Sudan?

    Mohamed Kordofani: I chose fiction because there were plenty of news reports and documentaries that covered the issue, but they usually focused on the political side of things. I thought that the social element in the case of the separation of South Sudan was crucial, and I also wanted to take a very intimate look at how the micro could affect the macro. For this reason, I chose to shoot the entire story inside a house. This one household could show you the magnitude of individual behavior. This could have only been achieved through fiction.

RK: Goodbye Julia is a film of many layers. There is the complex relationship between Mona and Julia. There is the movement between the personal/private and the social/political. How were you able to achieve this complexity and multi layering? Can you tell us about the writing process of the film?

    MK: The writing process took a very long time and was developed bit by bit every few months. In the early stages, it was a very simple plot. After the first draft, I realized that the characters were very flat because it was only a plot. And then I started infusing my own personal experience into the characters, and I chose different phases of my life because I think I have changed quite a bit in 20 years. I think I have changed quite a bit in 20 years. There was a lot of Akram, Mona’s husband, in me 20 years ago but then five to six years later, when I started having more progressive ideas, I became more like Mona, cause I was not sure how to proceed. I would take two steps forward and one step back and would not be able to share my ideas with the people around me who were a little conservative. So, you kind of live a double life. You have double standards. This is where the line came from for Mona’s character. Also, Mona’s pursuit of her passion in singing resembles my pursuit of art. I was an aviation engineer for 16 years, and only when I started writing Goodbye Julia did I make the switch completely to filmmaking. It was a very hard decision because socially being a filmmaker is not a prestigious position and because I have many financial responsibilities. So, it was very hard, but it is what I struggled for, and I wanted to pour some of that into the writing. I guess the personal and the political are within you, and it is reflected, in turn, in the script.

RK: In the film, Mona sings a song by the late popular Sudanese singer Sayid Khalifa in a church, with a composition including African accents. Can you talk about how you represented differences in the film and why that mattered?

    MK: South Sudan is a sovereign country now and they are long gone, but the film is a call for a reconciliation with other parts of Sudan that are facing the same issues that the film addresses. It was meant to be a wakeup call in the time before the war because I and many others saw the war coming.

    As for differences, I wanted to show them as something to celebrate, rather than as something that drives us apart, and I have expressed this in many ways in the film. With the wardrobe choices or in the art or decor of the house, you see that Akram and Mona’s side is very Arab Islamic. It has that touch, and then you see Julia’s room on the other hand that has all this crochet and the colors of an African kind of theme. In the wardrobe itself you have Mona’s dresses that really represent that era of 2005 when Islamists were at the peak of their power and women were not allowed to leave the house without a headscarf and had to wear sleeves under their dresses. On the other hand, Julia is still wearing what represents the south of Sudan. You can clearly and distinctly see the differences in identity. They coexist in the same way that the various types of music in the film coexist harmoniously. You have music from the south and you have music from the north, and the song that Mona sings in the church is actually a fusion of the two. The original singer, Sayid Khalifa, did not sing it with a church choir, but we did that in the film and it came out beautifully.

RK: How did you cast for the film? And did you have concerns about north-south representation?

    MK: You have a cast and you have characters and the story comes first, but, of course, there were, at times, talks about having a non-South Sudanese person play a role of someone from the south because there aren’t many actors from South Sudan, at least not in Khartoum. Yet, I was very keen on finding a South Sudanese cast, and I did. I did a casting call, and I went through a lot of auditions for the two main leads, but I could not find what I was looking for. Then I found Iman Youssef, who plays Mona, by coincidence on social media. She was singing at a café, and there was somebody taking a live video of her. I found Siran, who played Julia, on social media as well. She was being interviewed as Miss South Sudan. They both blew my mind. I reached out and asked them to come audition and they got the role from the first audition. With regards to the crew, I had many members from South Sudan, especially for consultation jobs. I needed to realistically represent the south. I did not want it to seem superficial or shallow, so I consulted experts in Catholic teachings in South Sudanese culture, and I also had fixers to help me get actors and to get into the South Sudanese community in Khartoum. This is one of the things I am most proud of, because, when I decided to write Goodbye Julia, I did not have any close relationships with anyone from South Sudan. Through this film, I now have plenty of friendships, extended friendships, and, for me, this means a lot.

RK: Can you talk about the international acclaim that Goodbye Julia has received and what that means for Sudanese filmmaking both inside and outside the country?

    MK: I think when you have a war in your country, talking about cinema becomes a crime in a way because real people are dying right now. I am not undermining the role of cinema. With Goodbye Julia, you can see that it was kind of like a beacon of hope for Sudanese people all around the region and even beyond in Europe and the United States. Sudanese people rushed to watch something from their own country. I think coincidentally we took the last portrait of Khartoum before the war in this film, and it really touched people and gave them some hope. Cinema does play a big role, even in war — I think even more so in war than in other times — but talking about the future of cinema without peace in Sudan, I don’t think that’s attainable or makes any sense right now.

Interview with Producer Amjad Abu Alala, collected by Rana Kobeissi via Zoom

Rana Kobeissi: You and Mohamed Kordofani share a common aspiration: to tell Sudanese stories. Could you tell us how you met, and what brought you to work together on this film?

    Amjad Abu Alala: Mohamed Kordofani and I met 10 years ago. I was returning from Dubai to Sudan. At the time, I was visiting Sudan a few times a year. I was looking for filmmakers in a country where there was no cinema industry. There were no workshops, no cinema school, nothing. Finding filmmakers in Sudan was like searching for treasure in a faraway mountain. Then, I heard about someone who was working as an aviation engineer and using his savings every year to make a short film; a one-man show with some help here and there. He would shoot the material, edit it and put it on Facebook or YouTube. When I watched his short films, I realized that he did not know that he was a filmmaker and that he could submit his films to festivals. You know how our families impose on us the idea of becoming an engineer or a doctor— with those films, I think he was just trying to tell himself, “No, I am an artist,” not really to show them in festivals. I contacted him, and we became friends. A few years later, I helped him with a short film he made, and, after that, he told me about Goodbye Julia while I was preparing to make You Will Die at 20*. He wanted to do it in the same way — a one-man show, or maybe a three-men show — with a budget of US$20,000 to $30,000. I told him, “This is a real story. Why do you want to do that?”

    He replied, “There is no cinema now. We are suffering.”

    I said, “Ok, let’s wait. Let me see how my own film You Will Die at 20 will turn out and you will be with me in the process anyway. If we manage to do it, then we will move on to Goodbye Julia.”

    That is what happened — I invited him to be with me on set, just to observe. I saved a chair for him next to me and he was on set for the three to four weeks of the shoot. Right after, when I was editing You Will Die at 20 in France, I flew to him to do the first pitch for Goodbye Julia. The way I see it, we bonded as filmmakers looking for myths. I think we needed to find each other and work together, along with the other filmmakers who were already involved in You Will Die at 20. Some of them were recruited to work on Goodbye Julia. There were also some team members, like Rawad Hobeika and Rana Eid from Lebanon and Hiba Othman from Egypt. These people worked with him again because they got to know him in person during work on You Will Die at 20.

RK: Goodbye Julia has won multiple awards, including the Un Certain Regard Freedom Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. It is the second Sudanese film to be submitted for nomination for an Academy Award, after your film You will Die at 20. Do you think this is an important milestone in Sudanese filmmaking and will contribute to forging a cinema industry in Sudan?

    AA: A very difficult and painful question. Painful because, if you had just asked me this question last year, I would have said yes: we have made progress. The process of making Goodbye Julia was less painful than with You Will Die at 20, so this was considered progress. We found people from Sudan to be executive producers of the film. After the revolution, Sudan became somewhat beautiful, even with the circumstances. After 2019, it started to become a civil country with laws, with freedom. For example, how did Sudan’s Oscars committee come about? With You Will Die at 20, when we needed to submit to the Oscars, it had to be done at a national level. Had we done it before the revolution, the Islamic government would have never agreed to it. At that time, we had this civil, liberal government, which formed a committee and hired someone to be in contact with the Oscars committee. For Goodbye Julia, the same committee convened again and submitted the film to the Oscars. Thankfully, the Academy said our country’s committee was valid for six years. Otherwise, it would not have been possible, since the country is no more.

    Back to the question of whether these films could really help the cinema industry in Sudan: Yes, in that, at least, they can give hope to other filmmakers. On a more practical level, however, they can’t, because there is no country. There is no place to shoot. We don’t even have a city to go back to. I cannot take Rawad Hobeika from Lebanon now and go to Sudan to shoot. During the revolution, Rawad came with me when there were just protests in the streets. He came and he enjoyed being there. But now I cannot put him or myself at risk. The Sudanese films we are now working on will be mostly shot outside Sudan.

RK: Given what is happening in Sudan right now, what would you tell people who aspire to produce and make films in Sudan?

    AA: What I would tell them normally is not what I would tell them now, amid the war. Raising funds for You Will Die at 20 was quite challenging. AFAC believed in You Will Die at 20 — the film and the script were really good — but no one could be assured that the film could be made in Sudan and would not be stopped by the Islamic regime, with the revolution and everything. The first funding we got for Goodbye Julia was from AFAC, and that encouraged other funds to support us. We had also built credibility and a reputation by then, whether mine, that of the production company —Station films — or that of Sudanese cinema in general.

    What I would tell Sudanese filmmakers is to hold on. They are desperate now— most of them had companies in Sudan. They had established their work. They had clients with NGOs or TV advertisers, etc. They were working, and now they are displaced in countries where there is no need for someone coming from Sudan to direct an ad or a film. So, now, they need to work differently. They need to know how to apply to AFAC or other funds that can support them, because this is the only way. There was no government to support them even before the war, so the situation remains the same, but at least before they had locations. They had teams. They had families to help, if they wanted some security. Now everyone is displaced or out of the country. I sound disgruntled, but this is how it is.

RK: In light of the war, how do you imagine carrying on? How can Sudanese filmmaking carry on?

    AA: There is no film industry, but at least we started building it, and now we are looking for alternatives. I am already working on four films. One is by me, and I am producing three others for different Sudanese directors. Even prior to the war, these films were set to be shot outside Sudan. The first is about the director’s childhood in Mecca. The second director lives in Paris. So, it’s a Sudanese film in Paris. Supporting these four films and making sure that the Sudanese cinema movement that started in 2019 continues has become the only thing I can do for the industry.

*You Will Die at 20 is a film directed by Amjad Abu Alala in 2019, which received widespread critical acclaim and several awards and nominations in international festivals and award shows.