CHRIS THURMAN: A fractious film that speaks to our own fractured times
‘Goodbye Julia’ is the first film from Sudan to be screened at Cannes where it won the Freedom Award
To atone for sins committed in a past life, I recently became involved in the world of film-making.
Before this happened, I used to take movies for granted. From big-budget blockbusters to small indie titles, from Netflix specials to niche documentaries, the problem appeared to be that it was almost too easy — there were too many new films being made. Now that I have stepped tentatively inside that world, however, it strikes me as entirely unlikely that any film project should ever be brought to completion.
Film is extremely resource-intensive: it demands huge amounts of time, money, skills, labour and equipment, not to mention plenty of good luck. No surprise then that the credits take so long to roll, or that one film’s producers, executive producers, associate producers and production companies can number in the dozens.
Anyone who has negotiated a co-production agreement is probably qualified for a diplomatic career — and indeed, at its best, international co-productions can resemble a special committee of the UN. An excellent example is the 2023 release Goodbye Julia, one of 16 new films being screened this month as part of the European Film Festival SA.
Most of the films selected for the programme represent a European nation; in this, the festival’s 10th year, the featured countries are Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Switzerland, the UK and Ukraine. But the festival’s curation has always emphasised the EU’s principle of transnational co-operation (both within and outside the EU), and Goodbye Julia is an inspiring manifestation of that vision.
The film is a co-production between partners in Sudan, Egypt, Germany, France, Sweden and Saudi Arabia. While the French and German connections help it to qualify for the European Film Festival on a technicality, Goodbye Julia is very much a movie in and of Africa. It is the first feature film by Mohamed Kordofani, and the first from Sudan to be screened at Cannes, where it won the Freedom Award earlier this year.
If your current affairs and recent world history knowledge is as limited as mine, you will know only a few things about the area south of Egypt: that Omar al-Bashir is a bad guy, that terrible things happened in Darfur, that South Sudan is the world’s newest (and least developed) country and that conflict in the region is ongoing. You won’t know how or why or who or where. And you will have little awareness of the complex dynamics in places such as Khartoum or Juba beyond George Clooney sound bites in explainer videos.
Goodbye Julia is a powerful antidote to such ignorance — not because the film is in any way didactic or expository, but because to understand the characters we meet and the decisions they make, we must gain some insight into the time and place that they inhabit. The action stretches from 2005, in the period of uneasy peace after the Second Sudanese Civil War, to the 2011 referendum that resulted in the secession of South Sudan.
The focalising characters are two women, Mona (Eiman Yousif) and Julia (Siran Riak), who represent two sides of Sudanese society. Mona is a “northerner”: Arab, Muslim, a member of the privileged class. Julia is a “southerner”: black, Christian, at the lower end of the social and economic hierarchy.
The northerners’ sense of superiority and their anti-southerner prejudice — a combination of fear and disdain — precipitate a tragedy that brings the two women together in a relationship of mutual dependence and deceit, a friendship built on the shaky ground of unequal power and status but with shared experiences of patriarchal forces governing their lives.
Goodbye Julia is more than a tale of “madam and maid”, but it will resonate with SA audiences familiar with the details of such potentially fractious and often intimate relationships: separate crockery for “the help”, sponsorship of school fees out of a sense of guilt, a belated reckoning with bigotry, and a domestic worker who is both “part of the family” and, implicitly, a “slave”.
• There are European Film Festival screenings in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Durban from October 12-22 , with a selection available for free online rental.
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