Goodbye Julia had its Middle East premiere on 25 October in nearly 20 Egyptian cinemas in Cairo, El Gouna, Alexandria and Tanta. Produced by the acclaimed Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala, director of You Will Die At Twenty, written and directed by Mohamed Kordofani, Goodbye Julia is the first Sudanese film to be featured at Cannes where it had its premiere in the Un Certain Regard section, winning the Freedom Prize. It also participated in over 15 international festivals, winning further awards.
The film proved hugely popular in Egypt, especially among the Sudanese community, formed after large numbers took refuge in Cairo and elsewhere from the ongoing war that broke out last April. Its treatment of thorny political and social issues in Sudan, most notably the secession of the South in 2011, is remarkable. Wracked by guilt after covering up a murder, Mona, a retired singer from the north in a tense marriage, tries to make amends by taking in the deceased’s southern Sudanese widow, Julia, and her son, Daniel, into her home. Unable to confess her transgressions to Julia, Mona decides to leave the past behind and adjust to a new status quo, unaware that the country’s turmoil may find its way into her home and bring her face to face with her sins.
Although Goodbye Julia is Kordofani’s feature-length debut, and the first work for most of the cast members, critics and audiences praised its tight script and wonderful acting, its realism in the smallest details, its honesty in expressing society’s contradictions, and its poetic charm. The enchanting performance by the two leads — singer Iman Youssef as Mona and model Siran Riak as Julia in their first ever cinematic appearance — was remarkable. They were able to express the two characters’ complex relationship, which includes political and social implications, with a great deal of intimacy, smoothness, and honesty.
According to Siran Riak, the film sheds light on the unspoken realities of both Sudan and South Sudan: “Things that the world does not see or know about us — it brought back a lot of sad memories, but those feelings helped me to impersonate the character. It requires a lot of patience and being present in the moment so you don’t lose yourself. The best moment for me, I would say, is being able to walk on the same red carpet with the supermodel Naomi Campbell. She is somebody I’ve looked up to in the fashion industry. It was a great honour.”
Riak recalls with gratitude the moment she received Kordofani’s message telling her about the film before he visited her in Dubai for auditions: “I wasn’t prepared for what he had in mind for me. He made me cry. I wasn’t prepared for that, but I was so excited to have the opportunity.” Still, it took intense acting coaching by the Egyptian actress and coach Salwa Mohamed Aly before she was ready for the role once she arrived in Sudan.
Playing the lead involved pressure and a mental struggle. “I knew this role represented the whole nation of South Sudan. The battle of believing that I am not Siran, I am Julia was very challenging. My character is so different from Siran. It was exciting for me to immerse myself in her world and convey her emotions to the audience. I have been a fashion model for over 12 years, I don’t use my emotions. It’s all about facial expressions. Acting is hard, with many emotions involved, but it is also fun. It is important that I got to speak on behalf of a lot of people and many can relate,” she adds, saying she had the opportunity to understand the challenges from both perspectives in Sudan and South Sudan. “I will definitely act again.”
Working with a talented filmmaker like Kordofani was an enjoyable experience. “He is very easy to work with. He was tough when needed, but it was all better for Julia. I learned heaps from him, and he will always have a special place in my heart,” she explains. Likewise Iman Youssef, who was supportive and sensitive: “I loved working with her. I would say all our moments were memorable. We had so much fun shooting together, a lot of laughter on set, a lot of love and support, and that made the work environment very light and easy.”
Youssef, for her part, says she and Riak were the perfect match: “There was such chemistry between us. It helped us to express those heavy yet delightful feelings. I enjoyed every scene.” She also enjoyed her moments on the Cannes red carpet: “My best moment was after the premiere when the audience applause went on uninterrupted for a full ten minutes: such an unforgettable feeling.” But the Egypt screening was special: “This is the first time most of my people, the Sudanese and the Egyptian people can watch it. The audience which shares the same culture will be more aware of the conflicts the movie discusses.”
Regarding how she was chosen for the role, she recounts how Kordofani saw her singing at a live concert by chance, and a week later asked her to attend the audition: “I was shortlisted from among a hundred candidates. It was such a moment.” According to Youssef, the most challenging part of being a first-time actress is having to remain aware of numerous factors on set while trying not to break the mood of the scene.
For Youssef, Goodbye Julia involves many true events and experiences: “Kordofani wanted to highlight the many levels of conflict in our society, to deal with layers of separation and to reveal much that is hidden. Goodbye Julia makes you pose questions and wonder. It was really painful being forced out of beloved country while we were looking forward to celebrating the film there.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly