The year is 2005. The beautiful Mona (Eiman Yousif) and her pragmatic husband Akram (Nazar Goma) enjoy a comfortable life in the Sudanese capital Karthoum. They are wealthy Muslims, and they live in a large protected by towering walls and a fenced gate. They feel relatively safe even as rioters take to the streets following the assassination of vice-president John Garang de Mabior and set their car on fire. The impoverished Christian minority demand independence, as the country begins to lay the ground for the secession that would materialise a few years later. These people are known as “Southerners”, and they are subjected to constant racism, classism and religious bigotry.
Mona accidentally runs over and nearly kills a child called Daniel. His infuriated father Santino witnesses the near-fatal collision and attempts to talk to a terrified Muna, who just drives off instead. Santino follows her on his motorbike all the way to her house, but Akram fatally shoots him before the man has the opportunity to explain what happened. “He was a savage, a Southerner, he wasn’t even wearing a shirt”, he justifies his murderous behaviour. The very lenient police barely investigate the occurrence and instead classify it as self-defence, without even locating Santino’s family.
Santino’s widow Julia (Siran Riak) is left despondent, searching for her husband and the father of her child in vain, completely unaware that he’s been killed. Mona is overcome with guilt because she nearly killed a child and then caused the death of his father. But she’s too scared to share her dirty secret. She fears that they could end up in jail, or that her husband could leave her (in fact the latter seems to be a much bigger concern, in a sexist society in which a woman’s social stand is defined by her marital status). In order to relieve her conscience, she decides to help Julia and Daniel. She removes them from the streets – where Julia sells wayka (dried okra) – and places the two Southerners into her house, with Julia working as a servant. She pays a private school for Daniel. The two women gradually bond and develop a profound friendship.
This fragile relation, however, is threatened by both the past and the future. Mona fears that the truth could eventually surface, and that Julia would hate her. She’s prepared to lie in order to keep the tragic events that led to Santino’s death buried deep in the past. The other challenge is Julia’s seemingly inevitable deportation. The largest country of Africa would split in 2011. South Sudan would finally gained independence following a vote overwhelmingly in favour of secession. The majority of Southerners, including Julia, would be displaced to the world’s youngest nation.
This two-hour movie includes a number of interesting sub-plots that neatly complement the main narrative thread. Julia begins an affair with a Southerner who has a grudge against Mona and her husband Akram. Mona is invited to sing in a Christian service, something Muslims don’t do (“a mosque has no music, maybe that’s why I never go there”, she explains) and which would tremendously upset her husband should be ever find out. And there’s a dark reason why Mona and Akram never had a child. Five years pass. Daniel grows up and decides to investigate his father’s death. We’re now on the eve of the vote that would lead to independence. Mona and Julia’s relation too is at crossroads. Their friendship is profound and yet fragile. It could break up at any moment. Just like Sudan.
Goodbye Julia is a 120-minute enrapturing drama thanks to its effective script blending elements of psychological thriller, melodrama and music. Yousif delivers a good performance, even if other actors lack the dramatic skills required for such multilayered characters and script. The entire cast is made of non-professionals. Most crucially, this rare piece of Sudanese cinema demonstrates that personal ties are often inextricable from socio-political connections. Ultimately, the movie seems to raise the question: If separation is indeed inevitable, should we at least strive for peaceful and loving co-existence?
Goodbye Julia is in Competition at REC, Tarragona International Film Festival. It premiered earlier this year in the Un Certain Regard section of the Festival de Cannes.