A handsomely-produced film with beautiful imagery, You Will Die at Twenty showcases a country and a culture rarely seen on international cinema screens. That it is also a writing and directing début by Amjad Abu Alala adds to its importance. A success in many ways the film also raises a few questions. Amjad Abu Alala was born and raised in Dubai but with Sudanese nationality. He spent a few years in Sudan as a teenager but his university education and entry into the film industry was in Dubai. He returned to Sudan and began working with the small film community. The Sudan Independent Film Festival was held in Khartoum in 2014. You Will Die at Twenty is a feature drawing on significant co-production support and film funding from several countries (and film festivals) and the technical and creative qualities of the film reach very high standards. The film won an award for a first feature at Venice in 2019.
You Will Die at Twenty is adapted from a short story by the Sudanese writer Hammour Ziada, exiled in Egypt. Alala and his co-writer Yousef Ibrahim shift the location of the story from the far North of Sudan to the East-Central area close to the Blue Nile. The location shooting was in the village that was the home of Alala’s uncle (all these details are from the Press Notes). The story events are familiar from other African films but begin distinctively with Sakina (Islam Mubarak) taking her newborn son to be blessed by the local Sheikh. Just as the blessing is taking place one of the dervishes who is chanting collapses when he reaches ‘Twenty’. The Sheikh and the other villagers take this as a sign that the infant has been marked by God and will die aged twenty. The effect on the family is profound. The boy Muzamil (Moatasem Rashed as the younger boy, Mustafa Shehata as the older teenager) will grow up with the burden of the prophecy. He and his mother withdraw to a certain extent from village life and his father soon leaves the village claiming he will earn money to send home from the countries he intends to visit. Muzamil will in effect have two surrogate fathers growing up, the Sheikh who becomes his mentor at the local village mosque and later the returned traveller Suleiman who introduces the young man to cinema, cigarettes, alcohol and women – although it is only cinema that interests Muzamil. He does have two other friends, the girl Naiema who becomes a beautiful young woman (Bonna Khalid) and a young man whose narrative function I didn’t really catch, though perhaps he is the archetypal village character with some form of learning difficulty.
The obvious narrative enigmas this plot outline throws up are will the father return and how will Muzamil manage to reconcile his mosque training with the world opened up for him by Suleiman? Can he become the man who can return the love that Naiema offers to him? And crucially, how can he hold himself together as he approaches his twentieth birthday? Sakina’s life is also full of questions, though I’m not sure they are properly explored.
As this outline indicates this is, at least in terms of actions, a simple tale and its familiarity is because of the universal issues of ‘coming of age’, the struggle with a ‘father-son’ relationship (or rather its absence and the need for surrogacy) and the certainty of a defined ending – Muzamil will die or he won’t. It also presents the classic clash between tradition and modernity. Alala tells us in the Press Notes that Sufism is very strong in this part of Sudan and that the cinema element reflects his own interest in the films of the Egyptian filmmaker Youssef Chahine. The clips that Suleiman shows to Muzamil on an old 16mm projector are from Chahine’s Cairo Station (Egypt 1958) and from a documentary of the same period showing Khartoum and the Sudanese people before the Islamic Revolution of 1989. The actual time period of the narrative itself is not made evident. It could be any time from the 1960s/70s onwards.
This is mostly a realist presentation but there are some symbolic/folkoric shots such as a horse entering a room where Muzamil makes a discovery. Overall the film looks very beautiful in CinemaScope with careful lighting for interiors and stunning colours for the villagers’ clothing and the natural colours of sand, mud and water. The cinematographer is Sébastien Goepfert who is French but appears to have close connections with the Tunisian film industry. The music score is by Amine Bouhafa who trained as a classical pianist in France. One of his early credits was the score for Timbuktu (Mauritania-France-Qatar 2014). Amjad Abu Alala has said that the Heads of Departments on the shoot were mostly Europeans and that he tried to include Sudanese assistants so they would develop skills for the local industry. All of this sounds good and certainly Goepfert and Bouhafa had knowledge of African productions. I did personally find the music score rather distracting on You Will Die at Twenty because of the European classical feel, but the film also contains local songs and singing. Slightly more unnerving is Alala’s statement about the cast and the production:
There is no cinema industry in Sudan, therefore almost no cinema actors. But I only needed professional actors for the Sakina and Suleiman parts. For Muzamil, I met 150 boys, and at the end of the second day, Mustafa appeared . . .
. . . I deeply wish the rebirth of a Sudanese film industry. My film is only the eighth feature fiction film ever produced in Sudan! (from the Press Notes)
These statements need discussion. It has always been the case that film production has struggled in most African countries outside of Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa. In most other countries some form of international (usually European) support has been needed. This film is an example of the high standards achievable with co-productions of this kind. But productions from within the country and with support from other African industries is still possible. On this blog in the last couple of years we have written about three Sudanese productions. Akasha (Sudan-South Africa-Germany-Qatar 2018) is an interesting little comedy made by Hajooj Kuka the same director responsible for Beats of the Antonov (Sudan-South Africa 2014) and like Alala, Sudanese by nationality but trained overseas. We also blogged on Talking About Trees (Sudan-France-Chad-Germany-Qatar 2019) the documentary about the Sudan Film Group which was widely praised. The latter two titles are both documentaries not fictions and Alala may be correct about only seven other fiction features but I think he undersells the desire to make films in the country. There is a big difference between the production values of Alala’s film and these three titles, though it is interesting that Germany and Qatar pop up as funding partners in three of them. All four films are of equal interest in telling Sudanese stories and it is worth noting South Africa and Egypt as sources of co-production.
You Will Die at Twenty has been acquired for the UK by New Wave Films so it should be available on a big cinema screen at some point after cinemas re-open. It is certainly worth seeing, especially for the imagery and the performances and the re-assurance that films from Africa are slowly becoming more available. The big screen will give the film the power it deserves.