Cannes movie explores roots of Sudan bloodshed, making festival history

From our special correspondent in CannesTunisia’s Kaouther Ben Hania joined early frontrunners for the Palme d’Or in Cannes with her haunting “Four Daughters”, about the decision by a group of teenage girls to join the jihad in Syria. Meanwhile, Africa’s “Cannes moment” continued with the timely screening of Sudanese drama “Goodbye Julia”, whose director spoke to FRANCE 24 about the bittersweet experience of attending the world’s premier film festival while his home country is at war.

The Cannes Film Festival reached a soggy half-way mark on Sunday, with a batch of fine movies mercifully making up for the filthy weather that has thrown a wet blanket over the Riviera’s film shindig.

Martin Scorsese and his fellow travellers Robert De Niro and Leonardo Di Caprio enjoyed a triumphant victory lap at the press conference for “Killers of The Flower Moon”, which garnered rave reviews after its gala premiere last night.

Based on a bestseller about a wave of murders among oil-rich Osage Indians in the 1920s, the movie marked a long-awaited return for Scorsese and De Niro, almost half a century after the feverish premiere of “Taxi Diver” (1976) resulted in boos and walkouts on the Croisette – as well as a Palme d’Or.

Encore in Cannes: Leonardo Di Caprio, Martin Scorsese & Robert de Niro on the red carpet.
Encore in Cannes: Leonardo Di Caprio, Martin Scorsese & Robert de Niro on the red carpet. © AFP (Loïc Venance)


Festival director Thierry Frémaux – whose scrap with a police officer outside the Carlton palace hotel caused a buzz on Saturday – had pleaded with Scorsese to have another shot at the Palme, but the veteran director insisted on an out-of-competition slot.

Shadow of jihad

The festival’s half-way mark is generally the point when Palme d’Or chatter begins and the early frontrunners emerge. Currently leading the pack, according to the pundits, is Jonathan Glazer’s Auschwitz-set “The Zone of Interest”, a chilling look at the idyllic family life of a German officer stationed at the Nazi death camp.

Others in Cannes were rooting for Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Four Daughters” (“Les Filles d’Olfa”), an experimental docu-drama based on the real story of a family ripped apart by the legacy of patriarchal oppression and the onset of jihadist militancy in post-Arab Spring Tunisia.

“Four Daughters” tackles a question that has haunted our societies for much of the past decade, exploring how two ordinary teenage girls could go from partying, flirting and entertaining a goth phase to joining the Islamic State (IS) group’s bloody jihad – leaving their mother and two younger siblings behind.

A still from Kaouther Ben Hania's "Four Daughters".
A still from Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Four Daughters”. © Cannes Film Festival

Ben Hania casts the real-life mother, Olfa Hamrouni, and her two remaining daughters alongside actresses to recreate scenes from their lives together in a bold cinematic experiment that the Tunisian director pulls off with remarkable control.

Both heart-breaking and rousing, the film is most insightful in its examination of the mother’s complex character, exposing the way her desire to keep her daughters safe led her to reproduce the violence and trauma she endured years before.

The physical and psychological brutalisation passed from one generation to another eventually leads the girls to hide behind the all-covering garments of rigorous Islam, trading one form of oppression for another.

The breakup of Sudan

The stifling burden of patriarchal oppression underpinned another ground-breaking competition entry, “Banel & Adama”, by French-Senegalese debutante Ramata-Toulaye Sy. A tale of frustrated love set in a Senegalese village with echoes of Romeo and Juliet, it marked only the second time a Black woman has competed for the Palme d’Or in the festival’s 76-year history.

This year’s edition has featured a bumper crop of titles from Africa and its diaspora, with a further four films competing in the Un Certain Regard sidebar dedicated to emerging talent. The abundance of movies on the big screen has gone hand in hand with frenzied activity at Cannes’ Africa Pavilion, reflecting a growing interest in the continent’s burgeoning film industry.

>> Read more: Africa’s ‘Cannes moment’ opens with tribute to Malian great Souleymane Cissé

While the selection leans heavily towards French-speaking Africa, in line with Cannes tradition, there are signs that the spectrum is broadening – most prominently with the selection of “Goodbye Julia”, the first Sudanese movie to screen at the festival.

First announced on April 13, Kordofani’s selection in Cannes has acquired special resonance since war broke out in his home country just days later, pitting the army against a rival militia in a bitter and bloody power struggle that has further derailed Sudan’s already fragile transition to democracy.


“Goodbye Julia” is set in Khartoum in the years leading up to South Sudan’s independence referendum in 2010, following another grisly civil war, this one between North and South. It explores the troubled coexistence between unequal communities in a society blighted by racism and injustice.

The great divide is portrayed through two households, starkly unlike in fortune: one Muslim, Arab and well-off, the other Christian, Black and poor. The titular character Julia (played by Siran Riak) belongs to the latter, though the film is really about the wealthier Mona (Eiman Yousif).

When their worlds collide in a fatal shooting, Mona’s husband Akram (Nazar Gomaa) dismisses the incident as “self-defence”. But Mona knows there is more to it, racked by a consuming sense of guilt that leads her to take Julia in as her maid – without disclosing the terrible secret behind her husband’s death.

FRANCE 24 spoke to Kordofani about the film’s message, the crisis in his home country, and his hopes that the Sudanese people can learn from the past as they seek a path out of endemic conflict.

FRANCE 24: How does it feel to be the first Sudanese director in Cannes even as fighting rages in your home country?

Mohamed Kordofani: It’s a bit of mixed feelings, and the feelings are quite extreme in the spectrum. On one hand I feel overwhelmed and honoured and extremely happy, and on the other hand I feel heartbroken and a little guilty of celebrating this achievement while my people are fleeing war and getting bombed.

Mona’s guilt is a key driver of your film. Is it a metaphor for a wider sense of guilt over the breakup up of the country and the decades of turmoil it has endured?

Guilt is what drove me to write the story from the beginning. When I heard the result of the referendum and saw it was 99% for secession, I realised the issue was not political but about racism. And I realised I was guilty of that myself. I felt I had to move away from certain conservative ideas I inherited from my family and society. All the characters in the film, they are me at different stages of my life. So yes, I felt guilty about South Sudan’s separation, I felt guilty about past relationships, when I was conservative, a little oppressive towards women. When I began to change my views I felt like I needed to put all of this in writing.

Mohamed Kordofani's debut feature is the first Sudanese film to premiere in Cannes.
Mohamed Kordofani’s debut feature is the first Sudanese film to premiere in Cannes. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24

Your film explores the roots of Sudan’s breakup. Does it also shed light on the fighting that continues today?

The number one issue in Sudan is tribalism; it’s the racism and polarisation. We have a very toxic tendency to be proud of things that drive us apart – gender, tribe, ethnicity, religion. These are the things people are most proud of and this is why we constantly have war. I feel we need to build a new national identity that is proud of things that don’t drive us apart, like freedom, like coexistence, like compassion. I want to ignite that dialogue by admitting that I, myself, had a problem and I hope that people watching the film will admit that as well.

Women have been at the forefront of protests for democracy since the fall of Omar al-Bachir in 2019. Was it important for you to have women driving your film as well?

I find it funny that we celebrate women during the revolution, when we’re pushing for something, but that when it comes to sharing the spoils it’s only ever the men who receive. I think the revolution was a turning point for the Sudanese people, in terms of becoming more progressive, but we still have a lot to do. I wanted to look at the story from the perspective of the oppressed, and that’s why we have Mona and Julia.

How hopeful are you that your film can be screened in Sudan?

Before the war broke out I had plans for screenings. I will return to my country as soon as the bombs stop. Others will come back and I know we will rebuild it. And one of the things we will rebuild are the theatres they destroyed, all around the country. They don’t have to be fancy, a projector and a white screen will do.

Do you fear there will be further secessions, in war-torn Darfur for instance?

I worry very much that there will be another breakup. But I’m also confident that the people have changed. They were resilient before the fighting started and they become more resilient every time something bad happens. For every action there’s a reaction; after war, people become more determined. I know the people will not allow another militia to rule and they will identify the problem and work on it – and I hope the film can help in that regard.


Cannes Film Festival
Cannes Film Festival © Studio graphique France Médias Monde

by France24

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