Goodbye Julia (film)Mohamed Kordofani
120 Min.  25. 10. 2023

At one point in Mohamed Kordofani’s Goodbye Julia, the title character (played by Siran Riak), announces that she doesn’t want to return to South Sudan, where she was born. She’s skeptical about the end of the North-South civil war. «In our country, the war never ends. Tomorrow it’ll start again.» Just as Goodbye Julia was premiering at the Cannes Film Festival this past spring, the war in fact started again, this time in (North) Sudan, giving fresh urgency to a film that looks back to the original war behind all Sudanese civil wars.

Kordofani, also the screenwriter, approaches this subject through the daily lives of two women in Khartoum: Mona (played by Eiman Yousef), a North Sudanese housewife, and Julia, a young South Sudanese woman displaced to the capital as a child. The story begins in 2005, shortly after the signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between the Northern Sudanese regime of Omar al-Bashir and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement/Army (SPLM/A), the rebel movement that fought for Southern liberation.

While the peace agreement was a huge step forward, ending decades of civil war and paving the way for South Sudanese independence in 2011, it was marred by one fateful event. A few months after the signing of the agreement, John Garang de Mabior, the founder and leader of the SPLM/A and arguably Sudan’s most visionary freedom fighter and revolutionary, was mysteriously killed in a plane crash. Shortly before his death, Garang had been installed as Vice President of Sudan, under the terms of the peace agreement. He was widely tipped to become the first President of an independent South Sudan, with anticipated secession.

Garang’s sudden death (or killing?) so soon after the signing of the agreement was a huge blow for South Sudanese. Conspiracy theories abounded: Some claimed he had been murdered by the Bashir regime. Others speculated that he had been killed by Yoweri Museveni, the Ugandan president who had backed the SPLM/A, and who was perhaps upset that Garang was becoming too big for his britches. Shock and anger over the timing and circumstances of the plane crash—suspicion that this was no ‹accident› but a premeditated assassination of the leader of the liberation movement—led to widespread riots by South Sudanese in Khartoum.

Revival of Sudanese Cinema

It’s at this moment of heightened tensions between Southern and Northern communities in the capital that Goodbye Julia begins. In the chaos of the days of the Garang riots, Mona becomes inadvertently responsible for the killing of a South Sudanese man named Santino (played by Paulino Victor Bol). The murder is covered up by Mona’s husband Akram (played by Nazar Gomaa) and his friends and neighbors. As middle class, Northern Sudanese men embedded in a corrupt and racist system, they can easily hide their crimes, making Santino «disappear« from the records, while his young widow, Julia, searches fruitlessly for him.

Meanwhile, Mona is racked by guilt. She tracks down Julia and her son Daniel (played by Louis Daniel Ding, then by Stephanos James Peter) and invites Julia to move in with her to work as a maid. Julia, who is homeless and penniless, agrees, not realizing that Mona is to blame for her husband’s murder. Soon, the lines between «employer» and «employee» blur. A friendship develops between the two women, despite barriers of ethnicity, class, and religion (Julia is Christian and Mona is Muslim). Five years pass. All the while Mona keeps her secret. 2010 ushers in the vote on South Sudanese secession. The arrival of Majier (played by Ger Duany), a charismatic SPLM/A activist who becomes Julia’s suitor, leads to upheaval in the equilibrium that Mona and Julia had established.

The film is anchored in the strong performances of Eiman Yousef and Siran Riak. The two characters are often framed in close shots that invite us to enter into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations—occluded in the silences, secrets, avoidances that structure the film. What isn’t said is more important than what is said in Goodbye Julia. This creates a compelling density to the interactions between Mona and Julia, and Mona and her husband Akram. The film might have benefitted from more time spent with Julia and her son Daniel; the child is a captivating presence that might have been highlighted more.

Goodbye Julia—which has been received very positively by Sudanese audiences who’ve had the chance to see the film—marks an event in the revival of Sudanese cinema of recent years. While both local and international cinema was hugely popular in the decades following Sudanese independence in 1956, this changed with the coming to power of the Islamist military dictatorship of Omar al-Bashir in 1989. The regime shut down cinema as part of its campaign against cultural activity deemed threatening to state ideology.

The two main actors of Mohamed Kordofani’s *Goodbye Julia* meet in the yard to prepare a smoke bath.
Mona and Julia go outside into the yard to prepare a traditional smoke bath. / credit: trigon film

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