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Mohamed Kordofani made history when his first feature film, Hi Giulia premiered at Un Certain Regard in May, marking the first Sudanese feature film screened at Cannes. A look at the tense and violent politics told by his divided nation through the lens of a quiet domestic drama, the film won over both audiences and critics, and was awarded the section’s prestigious Freedom Award.
The film is set just before the secession of South Sudan in 2011 when Mona (Eiman Yousif), a wealthy woman from the north, accidentally runs over kills and kills with her car the son of a poor southern family. The boy’s distraught father chases her to her home where Mona’s husband—who sees all dark-skinned Southerners as “savages”—shoots the man. Distraught and looking for redemption, Mona hires the man’s unsuspecting wife Julia (Siran Riak) to be her maid.
Kordofan has spoken The Hollywood Reporter from Bahrain shortly after violence erupted again in Sudan, with armed clashes between rival military factions igniting another civil war that, as of this writing, shows no signs of abating.
You finished this film just before the recent outbreak of violence in Sudan, have you been able to return to your country since then?
Everything is suspended, nobody knows what will happen. I came here (Bahrain) to finish post production but not Khartoum airport is completely destroyed. I don’t know when it will be back in service.
When you started working on this film, what was the initial idea that kept you going?
I don’t know if I can put my finger on it. But I think it started when I learned of the result of the referendum (for the South Sudan succession) in which a whopping 99% voted for separation. It was a moment where I really stopped and had to process what was going on. Because 99 percent, that’s not a political choice, it’s something much deeper and I think it was related to the racism that we, I mean the people of the north, have been practicing for so long. But I didn’t start writing right away. It has been a slower transformation process. And that’s also what the film is about. It is a film about the transformation of someone who realizes that he was unknowingly racist and wants to overcome this racism. A transformation of someone who first abides by social norms and traditions who transforms into a somewhat liberated and open-minded being and starts questioning those traditions, which play into the institutional racism we have inherited, and things such as the oppression that women suffer in our society.
I went through this transformation and it really inspired me to write something. I started writing Hi Giulia in 2018. Then the revolution happened and then it became more urgent to keep writing. The revolution was really inspiring and it was made by women. But there is a conflict in our society because even though we celebrate women and their role in the revolution, we still monitor their conduct. When it comes to our daily lives, nobody really wants to change anything.
Was that when you decided to make the main characters female, to tell the story from a female perspective?
I really don’t know exactly when, or why, I decided to do this. But the most influential people in my life have been women, starting with my mother. And because the story is about transformation, I knew I wanted to be on the side of the downtrodden, so I thought it would be better to tell it from a women’s point of view. Both women in this story suffer from oppression. Mona suffers social oppression and Julia systematic racism. Both try to overcome their social norms and traditions. I actually see myself in both characters.
If I can give a little more information, there has been a great transformation in my life. I was an aeronautical engineer before moving on to directing. And this transformation has changed many things. Because in engineering, there’s only right and wrong, there’s only one and zero, and there’s no gray area in between. When I moved on in 2014, I started to notice that everything isn’t just zeros or ones, that there’s no such thing as an all-good or all-bad character. That gray area, where you can’t really know who to empathize with, where you can’t really be sure of your ideas, your position, is what interests me. I was scared to make the film because I’m not sure, five years from now, how I’m going to feel about my opinions shown in the film. It’s taken me a year of not writing, of not being still, to finally come to terms with the fact that this film is an honest portrayal of what I’m thinking now, so I don’t think I’ll regret it in five years. time. At least it’s original and true and honest about what I thought.
Do you see Mona and Julia as accomplices to the systematic racism and sexism they suffer from? Both characters try to change things but at other times they support men who impose oppression.
I don’t know if they are complicit in the sense that they knowingly knowing what they are doing is wrong. They are just accepting, embracing all that comes from their ancestors. And when you don’t question it, it becomes who you are. It’s like in the movie, when Julia asks Mona, “What if you don’t move home?” and Mona says she can’t, because she inherited it. She says that her husband reminds her of her father, that the house has the scent of her father. And Julia replies: you live in front of a cemetery. What I’m really trying to question here is: should we keep everything that comes from our ancestors or can we choose what we inherit and let go? Because this racism is part of our heritage. It comes from the history of slavery we had in Sudan. We cannot get past that history and regard people with “pure African blood” as anything more than the slaves their ancestors were 100 years ago. This is astounding to me.
But there is more to the relationship between Northerners and Southerners than oppression. As with what happens to Mona and Julia, it’s a more complicated relationship. Because we have very close and fond memories with Southern people. Since we released the poster, which shows Mona resting on Julia’s lap, I’ve had messages and emails from people in the north talking about how much they miss their southern friends, how they had this special relationship with this person or that person and really want things to go back to the way they were. So this film is also a message of love to the people of the south.
Was one of the reasons you made the film to give a different and more nuanced image of your country than you see in the international news?
When you turn on the news from Sudan, all you see are burning cars and smoke coming from the buildings and it doesn’t really strike you as a viewer. But if you can put a lens inside one of those houses, and you see that there are normal people there just trying to get by, to live their lives, to try to become better people, normal people who suffer like you, who fight like you do, who have the same family and neighborhood issues, then maybe the outside world can understand us better or empathize better with what’s going on. I don’t want the world to feel pity, I think we can solve our problems, but at least they can stop outside interference, stop their countries from making the problem worse. There have been useful things that have come from outside, like the attention George Clooney has brought to the problems in Sudan, but getting the attention of outsiders can only be the beginning. Unless you really involve the Sudanese in what you’re trying to do, it’s probably pointless.
Did you shoot the entire film in Sudan?
Yes, but it was very difficult to shoot because we shot the film during the military coup. People were in the streets, protesting against the military. There were at least two protests a week. We were tear gassing our set maybe three, four times a day. But we worked in these conditions, both the Sudanese crew and people who came from outside, like director of photography Pierre de Villiers, the chief technician, the first AD, the sound engineer. These people have come from the outside and I really just have to send my love and appreciation for what they have done. They were very brave. Sudan is not a very stable country and for them to come from their countries to shoot the film in Sudan under these circumstances is nothing less than admirable and amazing.
Do you think your film can help the process of reconciliation between the communities of northern and southern Sudan?
I do not know. I don’t think that will happen, actually. The revolution changed mentalities a lot and now there are people who want to reconcile with the southerners. But we have the same problem with the communities of the Nuba Mountains, with those of the Blue Nile to the east. This is a recurring problem. The South is the model of the film but it is not the only problem of the genre. I want reconciliation, but we need more, we need to rebuild a new national identity, if that makes sense. Something that is not based on pride of origin, it is not based on gender, or ethnicity, or religion, or all those things that have distanced us, but on values that we can all truly share, the values that revolution asked: Freedom, justice, coexistence. These are values that we can really be proud of, they are values that can unite us. And part of that process, maybe the first part, would be reconciliation and an admission of guilt for things that have gone wrong in the past.
Will you be able to screen the film in Sudan?
If they stop bombing, we can show the film. I already said it. We don’t need a fancy cinema, I can paint a white wall and bring a projector, I can go from town to town like this and show people. That’s all I need.
This interview has been edited for length and comprehension.