Cannes movie explores roots of Sudan bloodshed, making festival history

From our special correspondent in Cannes — Tunisia’s Kaouther Ben Hania joins the early frontrunners for the Palme d’Or with her haunting “Four Daughters,” about a group of teenage girls who decide to join forces in Syria The story of the jihadist group. Meanwhile, Africa’s “Cannes moment” continues with timely screenings of the Sudanese drama “Goodbye Julia,” whose director told FRANCE 24 about the bittersweet experience of attending the world’s top film festival while his home country was at war.

The Cannes Film Festival entered a wet halfway point on Sunday, with a good batch of films lucky to make up for the filthy weather that cast a wet blanket over the Riviera Film Festival.

Martin Scorsese and his traveling companions Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio cheered at the press conference for “Killers of the Flower Moon” which received rave reviews after its premiere last night.

Based on the best-selling book about a wave of murders among the oil-rich Osage Indians in the 1920s, the film marks the long-awaited return of Scorsese and De Niro, a long way from Taxi Diver. (Taxi Diver) (1976) It’s been nearly half a century since its frenetic premiere amid boos and strikes at the Croisette – and the Palme d’Or.

Cannes Encore: Leonardo DiCaprio, Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro walk the red carpet. © AFP (Loïc Venance)

Festival Director Thierry Frémaux arguing with a police officer Shooting outside the Carlton Palace Hotel caused a stir on Saturday — he had begged Scorsese to do another Palme d’Or, but the veteran director insisted on an out-of-competition slot.

shadow of jihad

The festival’s halfway mark is usually the point at which discussions of the Palme d’Or start and early frontrunners emerge. Leading the way, according to pundits, is Jonathan Glazer’s Auschwitz-set “The Zone of Interest,” about a Nazi death camp camper. The idyllic family life of the German military officer is chilling.

Others at Cannes support Kaouther Ben Hania’s “Four Daughters” (“alpha girl“), an experimental documentary based on the true story of a family in post-Arab Spring Tunisia torn apart by the legacy of patriarchal oppression and the rise of jihadist groups.

“Four Daughters” tackles an issue that has plagued our society for the better part of a decade, exploring how two ordinary teenage girls went from partying, flirting and entertaining the goth phase to joining ISIS (IS) bloody jihad – leaving their mother and two younger siblings behind.

Stills from Kaouther Ben Hania "four daughters".
Still from “Four Daughters” by Kaouther Ben Hania. © Cannes Film Festival

Ben Hania has real-life mother Olfa Hamrouni and her two remaining daughters reenact scenes from their lives with actresses in the Tunisian director’s famous A bold cinematic experiment accomplished with extraordinary control.

Heartrending and uplifting at the same time, the film is most insightful when it examines the mother’s complex character, revealing how her desire to keep her daughter safe leads her to relive the violence and trauma she suffered years ago.

Generations of physical and psychological abuse culminate in girls hiding behind the all-encompassing garb of strict Islam, trading one form of oppression for another.

Sudan’s division

The heavy burden of patriarchal oppression underpinned another breakthrough entry, “Banel & Adama,” by Franco-Senegalese debutant Ramata-Toulaye Sy. A frustrated love story in a Senegalese village echoes Romeo and Juliet, marking only the second time a black woman has competed for the Palme d’Or in the festival’s 76-year history – after fellow French Senegalese Mati Diop ) 2019.

This year’s edition features a large number of films from Africa and its diaspora, with four other films participating a concern A sidebar dedicated to emerging talent. The deluge of films on the big screen went hand in hand with frenzied activity at the African Pavilion in Cannes, reflecting growing interest in the continent’s burgeoning film industry.

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

While in Cannes tradition the selections leaned heavily toward French-speaking Africa, there were signs that the scope was widening — most notably the selection for “Goodbye Julia,” the first Sudanese film to be screened at the festival.

First announced on April 13, Cordofani’s selection in Cannes struck a particular chord as war erupted in his home country days later, with the army pitting rival militias in a bitter and bloody power struggle. Further undermining Sudan’s already fragile democratic transition.

“Goodbye Julia” is set in Khartoum, years before South Sudan’s 2010 independence referendum, followed by a horrific north-south civil war. It explores the problematic coexistence of unequal communities in a society ravaged by racism and divided along racial and religious lines.

The Great Divide is depicted through two families with very different fates: one Muslim, Arab, rich, and the other Christian, black, poor. The titular character Julia (played by Siran Riak) falls into the latter category, although the movie is actually about the richer Mona (Eiman Yousif).

When their worlds collide in a deadly shooting, Mona’s husband Akram (Nazargomar) dismisses the incident as “self-defense.” But Mona knows there’s more to it than that, and she’s tormented by an overwhelming sense of guilt that has led her to take in Julia as her maid – without revealing the terrible secret behind her husband’s death.

FRANCE 24 caught up with Cordofani about the film’s message, the crisis in his home country and his hope that the Sudanese people will learn from the past as they seek to escape endemic conflicts.

France 24: How does it feel to be the first Sudanese director at Cannes at a time of war in your home country?

Mohamed Cordofani: It’s a bit mixed, and the emotions in the spectrum are quite extreme. On the one hand, I feel overwhelmed, honored, and beyond happy, and on the other hand, I feel heartbroken and a little guilty celebrating this achievement as my people flee war and bombing.

Mona’s guilt is the key driving force of your film. Is this a metaphor for a broader sense of guilt over a divided country and decades of turmoil?

Guilt is what drove me to write this story from the beginning. When I heard the results of the referendum and saw that 99% were in favor of secession, I realized that the issue was not politics but racism. I realized I was guilty of this myself. I felt like I had to shed some of the conservative ideas I had inherited from my family and society. All the characters in the film, they are me at different stages of my life. So yes, I’m guilty of separation in South Sudan, I’m guilty of past relationships when I was conservative and a bit oppressive towards women. As I start to change my perspective, I feel like I need to write all of this down.

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

Your film explores the roots of Sudan’s division. Does it also shed light on the battles that continue today?

Sudan’s number one problem is tribalism. It’s racist and polarizing. We have a very pernicious tendency to take pride in the things that separate us – gender, tribe, race, religion. These are the things people are most proud of, which is why we often have wars. I feel like we need to build a new sense of national identity that honors the things that don’t separate us, like freedom, coexistence, compassion. I wanted to ignite the conversation by acknowledging that I had a problem, and I hope people who watch this film will do the same.

Women have been at the forefront of pro-democracy protests since the ouster of Omar al-Bachir in 2019. Is it important to you to include women in your films?

I find it interesting that we celebrate women during revolutions, when we push for something, but when it comes to sharing the spoils, only men get it. I think the revolution was a turning point for the Sudanese people, in terms of becoming more progressive, but we still have a lot of work to do. I wanted to see the story from the point of view of the oppressed, which is why we have Mona and Julia.

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

Before the war broke out, I had screenings planned. I will return to my country as soon as the bombs stop. Others will come back and I know we will rebuild it. One of the things we’re going to rebuild is the theaters they destroyed all over the country. They don’t have to be fancy, a projector and white screen will do.

Are you concerned about further divisions, for example in war-torn Darfur?

I’m worried about breaking up again. But I also believe that people have changed. They are resilient before the fight begins, and every time something bad happens, they become even more resilient. Every action has a reaction; after the war, people are more determined. I know the people won’t allow another militia to rule, they’ll figure out what’s wrong and work on it – I hope this movie helps in that regard.

cannes film festival
cannes film festival © Studio graphique France Médias Monde

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