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.
I don’t think that I’ve seen a film from Niger before and this is a very beautiful film to introduce me to the country. I hadn’t realised that this is the largest country by area in West Africa south of the Sahara. Most of the population lives in the South of the country and the North is mainly the Sahara. The film reminded me of earlier films from Senegal, Mali and Chad and that isn’t too surprising for two reasons. First Niger has borders with many other countries and it has different language groups associated with similar groups in other countries. Second, just like many well-known filmmakers of those other countries, the writer-director of this film, Rahmatou Keïta, studied in Paris and then got work in French television before moving into film features. Her daughter Magaajyia Silberfeld who plays the lead character Tiyaa in this film, is similarly French-educated and a filmmaker.
Tiyaa has just returned from France for the ‘winter holiday’ which she will spend in her aristocratic family home in the Sultanate of Damagaram which includes the city of Zinder. Her home seems to be in a more rural area and her family and others close by follow a traditional way of life, despite the sophistication Tiyaa has learned in Paris. The simple storyline follows an age-old premise, made specific only by Tiyaa’s return from France. While a student there she has met an attractive young man, also from Niger and from a similar background, from a family not far away from her home. Will he propose? Tiyaa believes he will but she doesn’t want to get ahead of herself so she tries to repress the joy and the mounting frustration she feels. But it shows and everyone is aware something is wrong. Eventually her closest friend (or is it her sister?) decides to visit the ‘zimma’, the local shaman who can cast a spell to bring forward the young man with his proposal.
What follows is a sequence of encounters and family events that structure the narrative as a stop-go sequence leading up to what we hope will be a happy ending. Many of these events take place within the family compound and they involve a large extended family household of wives and aunts, servants and friends as well as visitors and even someone seeking sanctuary from Tiyaa’s father as the head of the household community. I was reminded of Sembène Ousmane‘s comments about stories in West Africa and the involved process of meeting people and observing the correct modes of address and procedures for offering and receiving salutations. The other Sembène-related thought is that the film still deals with the idea of West Africans travelling to France just as in those Senegalese films of the 1960s/70s. Now, Tiyaa has the wealth and sophistication to be studying unlike Sembène’s maid or roadsweeper. But she does meet (and greet) a woman who now lives on the street in a square where she is mocked by passers-by. She believes her man has gone to France and is waiting his return.
The beautiful Tiyaa is a sophisticated character who is also rebellious and friendly towards children and those not as fortunate as herself but she is also aware of all the traditional beliefs. The film is delightful but also an ironic representation of Niger which is one of the poorest countries in the world. I wonder if the film has been screened there? I doubt there are any cinemas as such. Perhaps it would just be seen by those with access to satellite TV? I’m glad I’ve seen the film and I’m grateful for the two screenings in this festival which I’ve managed to squeeze in between London Film Festival screenings.
This Tunisian film is very good and I am surprised that it has not received UK distribution, only a festival screening. It’s interesting to see this film as part of an African film festival. Tunisia is part of the Maghreb and ‘North African Cinema’ but the links between North African and Sub-Saharan African cinemas is not as strong as they were in the 1970s-1990s as far as I can see. There is a strong link here, however, as the writer-director of the film Leyla Bouzid is the daughter of the writer and director Nouri Bouzid, one of the group of Tunisian filmmakers in the 1980s-90s making films which regularly featured in the Carthage Film Festival when the festival operated in tandem with Ouagadougou’s Pan-African festival.
Leyla Bouzid made this, her début feature, aged 29 just a few years after the ‘Jasmine Revolution’ which ended 23 years of increasingly repressive government by President Ben Ali. In the Press Notes for the film, Leyla Bouzid says that she wanted to make a film to remind everyone of how the repression under Ben Ali worked. She suggests that though many documentaries were made during the revolutionary period, there weren’t any fictions. She wanted to make a film about how people lived during the time leading up to January 2011 so she set her film in the summer of 2010.
Farah (Baya Medhaffar) is an 18 year-old from a middle-class Tunisian family. She has just matriculated from high school with outstanding results and her parents are expecting her to study medicine. But Farah is young, lively and a talented singer. She is more interested in music than medicine and she is the singer in a band led by Borhène (Montassar Ayari), her boyfriend. The band plays ‘political’ material in popular music styles and Farah visits bars where she is soon tempted to sing impromptu. This is a dangerous activity which she keeps from her parents, helped by the family maid Ahlem. But eventually her mother Hayet (Ghalia Benali) works out what is happening, fires the maid and terrifies Farah into promising to stop singing. But she can’t. She refuses to obey her mother and continues her work with the band. Meanwhile, her father is working as a manager at a phosphate mine in Gafsa in the South West of the country.
I don’t want to spoil the narrative but singing is a dangerous business and the inevitable is likely to happen. There are elements of romance and ‘coming-of-age’ issues in the story and some generic ideas from music films, but at the centre is the struggle between mother and daughter. Why does Hayet fight so hard to stop her daughter singing? As a young female director, Leyla Bouzid, took the brave decision to shoot on the streets of Tunis in some of the roughest areas and in bars populated almost entirely by men. In one scene Hayet has to enter one such bar looking for Farah and Bouzid tells us how tense the atmosphere became and how the ‘extras’, who were genuine clients of the bar, stared in almost obscene ways at the actress as she had to repeat the scene. The film was shot by Sébastien Goepfert who had worked on a film for Leyla’s father and this was a film co-produced with four different national partners. Many of the Heads of Department in the crew were Europeans and for the crucial role of the music composer for the film Leyla Bouzid chose Khyam Allami, an Iraqi musician who is part of a band featuring members from across the Arab world. The music throughout the film is very good with Borhène playing what I took to be an oud with an electric pick-up alongside drums, guitar and synthesiser. Overall the approach to the music reminded me of the Egyptian film Microphone (2010). Perhaps the most daring casting decision Bouzid took was to pair Baya Medhaffar with Ghalia Benali. Baya was chosen after a long search but Ghalia is a well-known singer of contemporary Arab music. Fortunately the two women hit it off quickly and worked very well together.
The fear of police surveillance is very real in the film and I should warn you that there is one very distressing (but necessary) sequence. The film is successful in demonstrating just how the police worked in Tunisia under Ben Ali. I hope that things have improved since 2011. I thought this was an excellent film in every way and I would certainly recommend it. Although it has not been released in the UK, it is available on a Region Free DVD from Trigon Films in Switzerland. It has been released in the US and is available on DVD and online. Thanks to Africa in Motion Film Festival for making this available.
Here is a US trailer:
The Guardian has published yet another of its lists of the Top 10/20 films/songs etc. of a particular artist or genre. Most of these are just bits of fluff to pad out the pages of its arts supplement and readers will probably find these lists online. The lists are mildly irritating because they ‘rank’ titles – an exercise seemingly aimed simply at generating interest and argument and ‘beneath the line’ comments. In this case, however, the ‘African films list’ does perform a function that could be useful.
‘African Cinema’ is a contradictory concept. As one of the comments on this particular list points out, the continent is diverse with many languages and cultures. It has three significant film industries, in Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa (the latter two themselves covering different cultures) and many other sometimes isolated producers across the continent. Africa is also an attractive location for stories and productions funded from Europe and North America. But given all of this diverse production, very few African films make it into distribution in the UK. Very few ever appear in cinemas. Some make it into film festivals and some are now becoming available on DVD and/or online platforms. Because of this general lack of access, the Guardian list should at least raise the profile of African films.
The single most useful aspect of the list is to offer a link to TANO. ‘Tano’ is the Swahili word for ‘five’ and here refers to the UK’s five African Film Festivals (in Scotland, Wales, Bristol, London and Cambridge) which have joined together to offer an online festival of African films from the last ten years – one per year as chosen by audiences at the festivals (not ‘classic films’ as the Guardian implies). The online festival runs from 1st October to 20 October and the first film on offer, Mahamat Saleh Haroun’s A Screaming Man (Chad 2010) is still streaming today – and it is very good, so do try and watch it. After that there is a new film every couple of days. I’ve seen only two of the films and I’m pleased to see the others getting a screening. I think the films are available for a “Pay as Much as you think appropriate donation” from £2-£10. The only drawback is that the timing, in Black History Month, clashes with the London Film Festival and a couple of others. There just isn’t enough time to watch them all! Half of the 10 films on offer come from South Africa or Kenya, often with European support. This reflects the shift in support for African productions. In the 1970s and 1980s, nearly all the African films which reached the UK were from West Africa or North Africa, often part funded/distributed by French cultural agencies.
The Guardian’s promotion is a list ‘written by’ Peter Bradshaw. He lists A Top 10 in the print version and this is extended to a Top 20 online in ‘rank order’. It’s an odd list in some ways. The Top 10 are all reasonably well-known, but the next ten include half a dozen titles I haven’t seen and in most cases wasn’t aware of. I wonder how Bradshaw saw them? Probably, they were screened at festivals, sometimes as restorations or archive prints. Unfortunately the list loses some of its usefulness if readers can’t find the films. The list includes two titles going back to the 1950s and several much more recent titles. It’s certainly worth a look and if you can find any of the films online, I hope it spurs you on to look for the others (several of the Top 10 exist on UK DVDs). It does seem a list designed to attract comment and as commenters have noted, it includes District 9 as a South African film, so why not Tsotsi from Gavin Hood or Chocolat, Beau Travail or White Material by Claire Denis? What is an African film after all?
A couple of weeks ago we received a message from Kenya asking if we were interested in helping to promote a scheme which supports documentary filmmakers in East Africa. ‘Sema Stori’ simply means something like ‘tell a story’ in Swahili, so if you search for the title online, many different kinds of material pops up. What we are specifically concerned with here is a scheme linked to Docubox and Comic Relief (the tagline on the scheme’s website is ‘Stories that Speak’). The aim of the scheme is to offer mentorship by an established filmmaker and funding to make a documentary on one of four important topics: Mental Health, Early Childhood Development, Gender Justice, and the Right to Safe Secure Shelter and settlement. The scheme was promoted in Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda, offering up to £10,000 each for a maximum of ten films. The scheme had an applications deadline in May 2019 and the completed films have been made available in August 2020. You can access the films on the Facebook Channel of Sema Stori. Unfortunately, we have withdrawn from Facebook and closed our account so I have not been able to see the films. But since there are aspects of the programme presented elsewhere, I have decided to do some more research.
Documentary in East Africa
There is a long tradition of documentary filmmaking with a focus on ‘social documentary’ in East Africa and in other anglophone African countries. This is often seen to derive from the legacy of British colonial film policy which saw documentary film as a means of aiding social education. (It was also a means of propagandising on behalf of British interests) At the time of independence in the 1960s it did also provide the new nation states with some basic infrastructure and a small group of trained personnel. In other parts of Africa, similar ‘legacies’ meant that the early film cultures of the new nation states followed a different trajectory to that of francophone ex-colonies where French colonial policy promoted French culture and laid a foundation for more artistically inclined films in countries such as Senegal or Ivory Coast. The British-influenced documentary approach resulted in what some commentators described as ‘development filmmaking’. In the last ten years, 50 years after the end of the colonial period, we might expect this legacy to be no longer visible but it seems to have survived in a changed and updated way.
Who are Docubox? Here is the statement on the front of their website:
DOCUBOX IS THE EAST AFRICAN DOCUMENTARY FILM FUND
We exist to enable talented, driven, focused and accountable East African artists to produce unique films that unearth new realities and cross trans-national boundaries. Through training, development and production grants, screenings for people who love documentary films, we promote East African filmmakers and share their unique stories with the world through creative documentary. We currently fund fiction under The Box.
Based in Nairobi, Docubox in the modern parlance of film development work, appears to be an important hub – an organisation that brings together funders such as NGOs, charities and other resources with aspiring filmmakers, and practitioners prepared to take on mentoring roles. Its aim is to promote film as an agency for social change. One of the driving forces behind Docubox is Judy Kibinge who was born in Kenya, lived in the US as a small child and educated in schools and higher education in the UK before working in advertising, corporate video productions and eventually as an independent filmmaker in Kenya, gaining an international reputation. Docubox is a Kenyan organisation but its funding partners include the British Council, The Danish Centre for Culture and Development (CKU), the Ford Foundation, Comic Relief and Hivos – People Unlimited (Netherlands). Docubox has used the available funding to create a range of projects covering both social documentary and fiction and as well as online screenings it has organised documentary screenings in Nairobi courtesy of the screening facilities of Alliance Française. In this way it has helped many aspiring filmmakers to gain exposure.
Comic Relief is a UK-based charity founded by the scriptwriter Richard Curtis and the comedian and actor Lenny Henry in 1985 as a response to the Ethiopian famine. Since then it has grown significantly raising money from biennial ‘Red Nose Days’ which feature community fund-raising initiatives and a ‘charity telethon’. I have to confess that this is not something I have watched or taken part in for a whole host of reasons so I can’t really comment on the venture. A spin-off from the television coverage has involved various UK TV personalities making trips to Africa in particular to discover how the money raised has been spent. Again I haven’t watched any of these, but they have attracted some criticism with suggestions that they reinforce negative typing of Africa and Africans. Because of this I’m slightly wary of Comic Relief’s role in Docubox but it is reassuring to see that Docubox is purely Kenyan.
Docubox clearly want to see proposals for films that focus on personal stories rather than traditional investigative reports with ‘expert’ talking heads. They demonstrate this by offering examples on their website. I haven’t managed to see the films produced for the project, but I have discovered several of the video statements made by filmmakers who I assume applied. You can check the Docubox advice on how to submit and watch the short statements below (they are each only a few minutes long).
Finally I found a statement by someone who I think has been successful in making a film for the project. I think this is Eugene Muigai and his film is called ‘It’s Okay Not To Be Okay’ which should have appeared on the Facebook page of Sema Stori earlier in August.
Here is an unusual film release, perfect for lockdown. Sadio Mané, star footballer with Liverpool and Senegal has produced a film about his life and his football career. It is widely available on release via either of its two partners Rakuten TV in Europe and Canal+ in Francophone Africa. In the ‘Rest of the World’ it is available on Pay Per View at low rates (less than $2.00) see https://www.made-in-senegal.com All PPV monies will go to charities.
As a film this is a conventional biopic covering the childhood and ‘football journey’ of its subject. As a form of media event it is something more complex. Most global football clubs are now international brands with their own media production outfits, including their own TV channels/stations as well as associated social media outlets and fan operations. Over the last twelve months I’ve watched many programmes from Liverpool FCTV and gained a certain kind of access to the inner life of the club and some of the players (a handful of players are used in these films – many others are only glimpsed in the background). I feared that this film about Sadio Mané would be just a feature length version of these club videos. But it is much more than that.
The production company is the Berlin-based Vertical Social Club, a company focusing on offering a whole range of media services for sports clients in terms of branding, social media etc. on a global scale. This film meant working with Sadio Mané’s commercial brand sponsor New Balance and with Arena 11 Sports Group, another German company. What Arena 11 actually does I’m not sure but it appears to involve players’ agents and contracts and is linked to the transfer market. The film is credited to Mehdi Benhadj-Djilali,
Peta Jenkin and Jermain Raffington. Peta Jenkin appears to be the director with most experience in this kind of documentary.
But enough of the institutional stuff. Does Sadio Mané have a story interesting enough to fill 72 minutes? You bet he does. Sadio was born in a village in Southern Senegal in the Casamance region. His father was an Imam in the village where subsistence farming is still the main form of employment. His father died when Sadio was seven and he was brought up within his extended family who have a collective belief in education. It’s noticeable that Mané today speaks fluent French whereas the older members of his family speak their local language Diola (or perhaps the more widely-used Wolof?). Sadio wanted to be a footballer from early childhood but the family disapproved so at 15 he made the difficult journey to the capital Dakar with a friend to contact formal football hierarchies and on his return negotiated one more year of schooling before he joined ‘Generation Foot Academy’ in Dakar from which he was eventually signed by the French Ligue 2 club Metz.
This is a remarkable story. Later in the film, Sadio recalls his father’s death was partly the result of a lack of hospital facilities locally. He also refers to the ‘rebels’ in the region who have been fighting for independence for many years and whose actions interrupted funeral arrangements for his father. When Sadio arrived in Metz aged 18, a serious injury threatened to halt his career after only a few months but he recovered from surgery and subsequently played for RB Salzburg in Austria and Southampton in the English Premier League before signing for Liverpool in 2016. Now, as a winner of the European Champion’s League, UEFA Super Cup and World Club Championship, he is one of the most valuable players in the world.
The film is shot in 1:2.35 and mostly follows its subject through three sections – his early life and early career, success with Liverpool in the Champion’s League final of 2019 and the last section covering his return to Senegal after the final in Madrid, his time with his extended family and the ultimate disappointment of Senegal’s defeat in the Africa Cup of Nations by Algeria in a penalty shoot-out in Cairo. No footage of aspects of Sadio’s childhood exist so the production used the animation company Jump to create drawn animations that I think work very well. The style reminded me of the work of French animator/director Michel Ocelot on the ‘Kirikou’ films.
Sadio Mané speaks direct to camera in a relaxed manner and in his own film he seems at ease. He seems like a private person and apart from his agent Björn Bezemer, with whom he has a close relationship, we see him mostly with his extended family, including his uncle with whom he has built a house in Dakar, and in his village back in Casamance. The film ends with him opening the school he has built and the hospital that will be completed soon. He repeats his family’s words to him about valuing education above all. The young man has done well, learning a great deal outside school. But it isn’t easy. He is under pressure, both as an important player in the national team and as a local role model in Casamance.
This is a German film so Jürgen Klopp speaks German, Sadio speaks French and his family’s local language. Much of the rest of the film is in English (or at least I think it is – I’m so used to reading subtitles that I sometimes don’t notice). The Liverpool players who appear are, I think, all non-English players. Virgil Van Dijk, Gini Wijnaldum and Mo Salah speak in English but Naby Keïta, who comes from Guinea and in some ways is closest to Mané in terms of background, speaks in French. Selecting these players to comment seems logical for several reasons but they are not spelt out and I would like to have learned a little more about Sadio’s interaction with the wider Liverpool FC community. But then, I’m a fan and the film does include the shot above in which Sadio stands next to a quote by Bill Shankly, so I can’t complain.