Goodbye Julia: a personal drama reflecting differences and tensions between northern and southern Sudanese peoples

Mohamed Kordofani, “Goodbye Julia” (2023)

A morning car accident becomes an unlikely catalyst in a plot that explores the complicated relationship, with all its differences, prejudices and tensions, between the northern and southern communities of Sudan that eventually led to that country’s separation into Sudan and South Sudan after a national referendum in January 2011. “Goodbye Julia” is set in the Sudanese capital Khartoum during a period some years before that referendum takes place; already at the outset, rioting is taking place around the city and southern Sudanese people are attacking wealthy northerners’ properties and torching their cars. Former singer Mona (Eiman Yousif) lives with her husband Akram (Nazar Gomaa) in a middle-class gated compound in Khartoum: unable to bear Akram children, she passes much of her time at a restaurant watching a jazz band play. One day while driving, Mona is distracted and accidentally hits a small boy. The boy’s father gives chase and Mona frantically phones her husband. The father catches up with Mona just as she arrives home and Akram comes running out, branding a rifle and threatening to shoot. The father comes towards Akram and Akram blasts away at close range.

They have to call the police and the police dutifully take down details of what transpired. A neighbour, Bakri, covers for Akram by paying the police off and takes charge of the victim’s bike. Feeling guilty at the course of events following the accident, Mona sets off to the police to discover the victim’s identity. She secretly obtains the victim’s wallet and driving licence and tracks down his wife and the child who are living in a slum, having been booted out of another neighbourhood in Khartoum not so long ago. Mona offers the widow, Julia (Siran Riak), work as a maid at her home. Julia brings her son Danny to the house and begins work; not long after, she and the boy begin living at the house in separate quarters after their slum is torn down by authorities. Thus is set a scene in which Mona and Julia’s lives become intertwined: the two women become friends, yet an air of tension exists over the pair as Julia still mourns over her apparently missing husband. Mona encourages Julia to return to school to finish her education and offers to pay for Danny’s schooling as well. As time goes by, Julia gains confidence and becomes more financially independent and immersed in her Christian community, while Mona feels lonely and trapped in a loveless marriage dominated by her husband’s demands and Sudanese Arab cultural traditions.

Against a background of volatile politics, in part caused by frictions between the Arab Muslims (the northerners) and the descendants of tribal peoples (the southerners) and the intersection of these frictions with class differences, the drama that plays out as Mona is torn between loyalty to her husband and her own desire, encouraged by Julia, to resume singing and rediscover her individuality and freedom, while continuing to lie to both Akram and Julia, is very powerful and moving. One can sympathise with Mona’s good intentions in taking in Julia and Danny, but her continued lying to them both does have major consequences for all three of them. Eventually Mona does find her freedom and her voice but the personal costs involved are considerable.

There is irony in Mona and Julia’s situation: the employer is less free, physically and psychologically, than the servant she employs. Though they become close, the lies and evasion that Mona habitually resorts to tear them apart and only then do both women really become free. Julia takes up a teaching position in the new South Sudan capital Juba, and her son follows, soon to join the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement; and Mona leaves her husband to join the jazz band she has followed over the past several years. One can only hope that the freedom Julia and Danny are promised in Juba is a real freedom based on grassroots community activism and does not turn out to be manipulation and exploitation by foreign governments keen on extracting South Sudan’s oil and energy resources.

The plot can be a bit predictable and in parts is contrived, but it does allow the main actors to inhabit their characters so much so that viewers almost feel like voyeurs watching a documentary in real time. Eiman Yousif and Siran Riak do excellent work in their roles – both actors had not done much or (in Riak’s case) any acting before – and Nazar Gomaa is outstanding in portraying Akram in all his complexity, his prejudices and his manner ranging from gentleness to harsh putdowns and criticisms to Mona. The acting is complemented by the film’s colours: mostly reds, oranges and browns, reflecting the dusty streets and urban environment of a desert-based city. The cinematography emphasises the emotional turmoil experienced by characters as the plot unfolds and progresses to its devastating climax.

The film ends on a hopeful if not happy note, with Mona and Julia going their separate ways, and even the house where Mona and Akram lived ends up being abandoned. By this point the secession referendum in Sudan has already taken place and the results announced, and Mona and Julia’s journeys reflect the separate journeys two new nations must now make: journeys that (it is to be hoped) will be based on truth and trust among people, and not on lies, conflict and fear. Unfortunately, with Danny joining the SPLM – the last time we see him on screen, the young teenager is in a soldier’s uniform carrying a rifle, being driven to war – the film insinuates that those journeys may founder on continuing hatreds, fears and prejudices between the northerners and southerners.