Ethnic and religious divisions fuel Sudanese film 'Goodbye Julia'
Updated June 7, 2023 at 10:36 AM ET
When Sudanese filmmaker Mohamed Kordofani was 23 he peered out from his balcony into the streets of Khartoum to see southern Sudanese clashing with police.
It was 2005 and Sudan had just emerged from an almost 22-year civil war after southern Sudanese Christians rebelled against an Arab Muslim government.
A power-sharing agreement to end the war granted the southern Sudanese the right to self-determination and a transitional unity government took power. That included making revolutionary John Garang, founder of the Sudan People's Liberation Army, vice president.
But just a few weeks into his time in office, Garang died in a helicopter crash and his supporters poured into the streets to mourn, skirmishes with police ensued and 36 people died.
At the time, all Kordofani saw was violence that he blamed on southern Sudanese.
"I was angry at the southerners," Kordofani said in an interview with Morning Edition. "And I think only after the separation of South Sudan, when I saw the result of the referendum, it was like an epiphany to me. I realized that there's no way a whole nation will want to separate for political reasons."
He reflected on how he'd interacted with people from the south over the course of his life.
"Unfortunately, I realized that I did not know any southerners," Kordofani said. "It is as if we had done some sort of an apartheid, even though not formally, but we had segregated these two communities completely."
It was then he began to understand the repression of southern Sudanese and the prejudice he held within himself.
That's why he set his new film, Goodbye Julia, in the years that led up to that referendum in 2011 when southerners chose to secede. The opening scene of his film is pulled from the memory of that night on his balcony.
The film explores the ethnic, tribal, and religious divisions in Sudan that have repeatedly fractured the nation and sparked conflict.
It centers around an upper class Arab Muslim woman named Mona who is plagued with guilt for causing the death of a South Sudanese Christian man. She befriends the man's wife, Julia, and begins to recognize her role in the racism that empowers her ethnic group over Julia's.
"I see myself in Mona in so many ways and the realization that she had been, even if unknowingly, racist towards the southerners is something that I have also realized," Kordofani said. "And I also see myself in Mona's husband, Akram, who believes so much in traditions and in customs as it has been passed on from generation to generation. And that was exactly me I think 20 years ago."
This conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity. It includes some quotes from the interview with Kordofani that were not aired in the broadcast version.
On choosing to set the film in the years before South Sudan became independent
I think the time from 2005 to 2007 is a pivotal time in the history of Sudan, not only on the political front, but also because it was an opportunity for the Sudanese people to find reconciliation. Unfortunately, we did not seek reconciliation. Everybody just settled for the treaties and the political agreements. And I think ethnic divisions are still a problem to this day. It's the root of many of the political issues that we face in Sudan as we know it today. After the separation, we still have ethnic divisions and racism in South Sudan today and in the west, in Darfur, in regions like Blue Nile, in Nuba mountain, even in the east. So I think speaking of South Sudan was just a model to highlight an ongoing end of the current problems that we still face today.
On a scene in the film where Mona sings at Julia's church even though Mona has been forbidden from singing by her husband
If you notice in the song, the song is a mixture of the north Sudanese, which is this song. It's performed by Sayed Khalifa, who is a famous artist in Sudan. But you will also see the choir behind Mona, who are southerners. This is the choir from the church. And we actually utilized a real choir from the church to add that southern flavor to the song. To me, this is what we should have celebrated — this diversity — and incorporated it into our culture rather than hold onto this Arabic and Muslim identity alone. We should be proud of being Arabs and Muslims but we can also be proud of being Africans and being part of this nation that the South Sudanese can contribute to.
On the relationship between Mona and Julia as a symbol of possible unity at a time of separation
There is a recurrent theme in the film where I try to imagine what things could have been if we coexist and if we can put all our problems behind us and just try to see each other as humans. But I always bring it back to reality at the end of each scene or each sequence, or even at the end of the film. Let's not live in that false dream and do a reality check and actually work to achieve [equality and unity] instead of just dreaming about it.
On what happens in the absence of justice
I think it is clear that the absence of justice will always result in war. And this is kind of what the film is trying to say: that the privileges we hold onto as northerners or as central versus peripheries will always come back to bite us in the back. There's no other way than to actually try to be just and let go of these false privileges that we try to hold on to.
On depicting such an unvarnished account of racism
The hardest part for me was the realization that I myself am guilty of that. But once you admit that to yourself and you decide that you want to do something about it, then the rest of it just falls into place. Of course, I'm going to face a lot of hardship and criticism and controversy once the film screens because not a lot of people will like how the northerners are portrayed in the film. But I still think this is the right thing to do. And I believe in my thoughts and in what I'm trying to do ... No one in the film is depicted as wholly good or wholly bad because I do understand that even the northerners are victims of their societies and their communities and the values that have been passed on to them through the generations. So, I am able to empathize with all characters in the film. Yet I can point out where I think the problem lies.
On the current conflict in Sudan
We still need to find reconciliation as Sudanese people, to not rely on the government attempts, if any, but to try to create movements for reconciliation, to try to build a new national identity that is proud of values that bring people together, values other than race, tribe, gender, religion. These things divide people. We can find the values that really represent us as Sudanese. And maybe we can use the values that the revolution has called for: freedom, peace, justice. And we can add to that coexistence and and other things ... In the back of my head I'm always scared of more separation that may face Sudan in the future. Separation of Darfur. Separation of Nuba Mountains. We have so many regions that might take on that path to try to separate. And if we don't do something about it, I think eventually that's what will happen.
On finishing filming in Kharotum just before the current battle between two generals vying for power began
I left Khartoum on the 13th of April and the war broke out on the 15th of April. I was on my way to do the sound design in Beirut when the war broke. I see all the destruction and the burning of the city. I am very sad but luckily I was able to take a portrait of this city before these generals and their cockfight really destroy everything.
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