'Walking the red carpet while people run from war': The film festival's first Sudanese director Mohamed Kordofani talks conflict and Cannes
Sudanese director Mohamed Kordofani is speaking to journalists one by one at the Cannes Film Festival, on a sunny terrace in the majestic Palais des Festivals that overlooks a pavilion of yachts. He’s talking about the ongoing conflict in Sudan, his initial feeling of guilt – even discomfort – of being here in this prestigious film festival, while his countrymen try to flee and survive the conflict in Sudan.
"It's so unfortunate that the announcement of the film [to be selected in Cannes] was just two days before the war broke. We didn't have time to really celebrate this"
But mostly, Mohamed is here to discuss his already award-winning film, Goodbye Julia, the first Sudanese film to be selected to feature and premiere at the world’s biggest film festival.
“It's so unfortunate that the announcement of the film [to be selected in Cannes] was just two days before the war broke. We didn't have time to really celebrate this,” Mohamed told The New Arab.
Goodbye Julia, which explores the political tension between the country’s north and south regions via the cross-class relationship between two women, was just at its finishing stages when conflict erupted in Sudan. The director was working on sound design in Beirut in mid-April as a violent power struggle in Sudan started between the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).
Violence escalated quickly between the two military factions, as several ceasefires failed to hold. According to the World Health Organisation, more than 700 people have been killed and at least 5,287 have been injured, though the true death toll is believed to be much higher.
"It's just sad that somebody who is an artist and whose film is in Cannes cannot come because now they're treated as refugees"
Meanwhile, the United Nations refugee agency estimates that more than one million people have been displaced from six weeks of fighting in Sudan, including a quarter of a million refugees.
At the film’s premiere in Cannes last weekend, Mohamed gave an impassioned speech dedicated to his cast and crew and spoke about how many of them were unable to come to celebrate the film’s premiere in France due to visa issues.
“Most of the crew and my family have evacuated now, most of them are in Cairo. But it's just sad that somebody who is an artist and whose film is in Cannes cannot come because now they're treated as refugees.”
The director said that only the lead actress, Eiman Yousif, was given a one-week visitor’s visa by the French embassy in Cairo, but that the rest of the crew wasn’t, most likely due to the high demand for European visas requested by Sudanese people at the moment.
“I struggled for a few days to accept the fact that I am going to be in Cannes walking on the red carpet while people are running away from the war,” Mohamed said. “But at the end of the day, I made peace with it, because I felt like it would be better for Sudan that I come here and maybe talk about these issues rather than just staying at home.
"And to my surprise, my inbox is flooded with messages of Sudanese people thanking me for being the only good news they have had in a month.”
Goodbye Julia marks a new dawn of talents from the Sudanese film industry. Mohamed is trained as an aircraft engineer and had only previously directed short films, music videos and commercials before this debut feature film.
It is also the first time the two main actresses in Goodbye Julia have ever been on screen. Mohamed had discovered both of them on social media — Sudanese actress Eiman Yousif while she was singing on a post that went viral online (her character in the film is also a talented singer), and South Sudanese supermodel Siran Riak in one of her modelling campaigns.
Despite these fresh beginnings in cinema, Goodbye Julia was widely praised at Cannes, particularly for Mohamed’s writing and directing.
The film, which is co-produced by Station Films, MAD Solutions, Red Sea, and CANAL+ International, won the specially designated Freedom Prize (described by Jury President John C. Reilly as recognising a film that “honours our sacred right to freedom”) at the Un Certain Regard awards at the end of the film festival.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote that “with its classic, accessible style, Goodbye Julia will surely rally more support for the cinema of Sudan, a nation full of stories that need to be told about its past and present.”
Indeed, Goodbye Julia engages with issues related to national identity, as the story is centred on events before the 2011 referendum in which South Sudan gained its independence from the north. It also confronts issues like racism, patriarchy, and xenophobia, which Mohamed says are still prevalent in Sudanese society, especially from Sudanese Arabs towards Black Sudanese.
Despite its political context, the film doesn’t deal explicitly with politics but rather with domestic, personal affairs.
After she is overcome by guilt for covering up a murder of a northern Sudanese man, Mona (Eiman Yousif) hires the oblivious wife of the deceased man, Julia (Siran Riak), as her maid, and Julia moves into Mona’s house with her son Daniel.
But Mona has a tense marriage at home, and her husband is not only extremely controlling (such as forbidding Mona to pursue her singing career), but also unapologetically racist towards southern Sudanese, often calling them “slaves” or “servants.”
In this way, the film weaves the personal and political to confront both the country’s separation and the rupture of marriage and family.
Mohamed said that all the characters in the film – bar the young Daniel – are inspired by his personal experience. He said that for some time he even held some of the xenophobic views Akram (Mona’s husband) shows in the film.
"People will always frown upon the idea of being portrayed as racist... but it's easier for me to defend my views than if someone from outside came to make this”
“I can see myself being just a victim of my society,” the director said, looking back. “Not everyone will be happy to admit we [Sudanese people] have an inherited racism and patriarchal issue,” he continued, reflecting on the likely controversy the film will receive from a wider Sudanese public.
“People will always frown upon the idea of being portrayed as racist, especially the northerners. But at least for a northern Sudanese to bring these stories, someone from that community, it's easier for me to defend my views than if someone from outside came to make this.”
As the 76th Cannes Film Festival came to an end, Mohamed Kordofani said he is not planning where his next film premiere will be, but where his next home will be — he cannot go back to Sudan and remains unsure where to go next.
But despite his initial mixed feelings about coming to the festival, the filmmaker realised how important it was for him to be present, and how film can be a key medium to discuss political and social issues with a wider audience.
“The feedback I’ve received so far is that this is not just a film, because people now understand Sudan better. They can see past the smoke and the fire and the things that they see in the news, and get a lens to see the people that live inside these homes," he says.
"And this really helps treat the news not as news, but rather as a human crisis.”
Alexander Durie is a Multimedia Journalist for The New Arab, working across video, photography, and feature writing and attended the Cannes Film Festival this year where this interview took place.
Follow him on Twitter: @alexander_durie