This film narrative begins with a long shot of a container ship moving at a good speed through a wide river passage. In a wooded area close to the river a woman discovers something which after investigation and careful scraping away of soil reveals two skeletons side by side. A cut takes us to a close-up of a man picking chanterelles, wild mushrooms, in the woods. The man’s rather tattered clothes and the introduction of non-diegetic music – a harpsichord or a dulcimer? – suggests an earlier time. The man is ‘Cookie’ (John Magaro), hired by a bunch of unkempt trappers to keep them fed, partly through his foraging. A little later he finds a naked Chinese man in the woods. Unlike the squabbling trappers Cookie seems a kindly soul who gives the Chinese man a blanket, and food and drink and hides him from the trappers.
With this opening, writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt and her writing partner Jon Raymond, whose novel they adapt, raise any number of intriguing questions about American history, myth-making, the concept of the Western narrative and also the writing of those narratives about ‘discovery’ and the early attempts by Europeans to live alongside indigenous peoples and other migrants in the North West of what would later become the United States. They don’t directly tell us when or where this long flashback is set but if we know their previous collaborations such as the feminist Western Meek’s Cutoff (US 2010), we might reasonably assume that this is ‘Oregon Country’ a large area being exploited mostly for beaver pelts by both British and American interests. Raymond’s novel Half Life (2004) confirms that this is the setting. The time is the 1820s but I’m not sure how learned that.
After aiding the the Chinese man, King-Lu (Orion Lee), Cookie doesn’t see him again for some time but then he meets him again in the ramshackle settlement known as ‘Fort Tilikum’. King-Lu has somehow acquired a shack and he invites Cookie to visit. Soon the two men settle in together, learning a little about each other’s background. ‘Cookie’ is a skilled baker who dreams of owning a hotel and bakery in San Francisco. King-Lu is from North China and has travelled the world. Both have heard that this is the land of abundance and they discuss ways in which to make their fortunes. King-Lu is the more bullish but Cookie has the skills to make baked goods that would sell very well in the settlement – like ‘hot cakes’ in fact. The key to possible success is the ‘first cow’, a beautiful dairy cow that has been brought to the nearby grand residence of the ‘Chief Factor’. Played by Toby Jones this character and his main employee Lloyd (Ewen Bremner) represent the English/Scottish influence in the area. ‘Factor’ is the Scots word for someone who acts as the agent of a large landowner. It was also a word used to describe the entrepreneurs who were wheeler-dealers in the lands controlled by the Hudson’s Bay company, the main power in Oregon at this time. (Much of this background is also explored in The Sisters Brothers (France-Belgium 2018), though some twenty-five years later when the ‘Oregon Territory’ is being developed.)
The Chief Factor has bought the cow, the first to be seen in the area, to improve his hospitality but unfortunately the bull and calf that accompanied it died during shipment. Cookie declares that if he had access to milk he could bake anything, not just ‘flour and water bread’. Here could be the two men’s golden chance. But how will he and King-Lu get the milk? That’s basically the rest of the plot and you can probably work out what happens.
First Cow is a long film (122 mins), especially given the rather thin plot. It’s shot in the squarish Academy format that had mainly disappeared from American film production by the mid-1950s, certainly from ‘studio productions’ (but which Reichardt used in Meek’s Cutoff). Much of the film takes place in the murky world of interiors with candlelight or in the woods at night. For audiences more used to high key action pictures it must be a trial to watch. Toby Jones and Ewen Bremner are likely to be the only actors UK audiences will recognise, although the woman seen in the short opening sequence is Alia Shawkat, who has featured in many US TV series and independent films. The same is true of John Magaro and Orion Lee. Other actors, like the creative team may have been part of other Kelly Reichardt productions. There are three kinds of responses to the film: bewilderment and professed boredom from mainstream cinemagoers, a feeling that this isn’t the best of Reichardt’s work by some critics and acclaim by those who feel she has once again offered a unique and cogent statement about American culture. I’m with the last group and I would bracket her with Debra Granik as my two favourite US auteurs. I expect Chloe Zhao will join them when I’ve seen more of her films.
Much of the discussion about the film is around concepts of naïvete, mythmaking and critiques of capitalism. It’s an interesting time to discuss these concepts alongside the fate of indigenous peoples and the assimilation of migrants in the expanding United States. The two central characters are both likeable men. They don’t mean harm to anyone, they just want to make something of themselves. They don’t realise that this ‘Eden’ or ‘land of opportunity’ is (a) the homeland of local North American peoples and (b) that Eden has already been corrupted by the early capitalist exploitation of the Hudson Bay Company, the rapacious agent of British colonialism. There is no going back, the indigenous people are being killed by European diseases, the local beaver population is being decimated by trapping and there is no law as yet. I was reminded of various Westerns, set later. Those in the North West like Altman’s McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971) which shares an actor with First Cow, René Auberjonois, and Michael Winterbottom’s Hardy adaptation, The Claim (UK-Canada 2000). Both these films share a sense of European miners and other migrants, but they also feature European women. First Cow has no lead female roles but there are many scenes when indigenous women are silently in the background. The one sequence in which there is dialogue is that between the Chief Factor’s wife and the wife of an indigenous man. The Chief Factor’s wife is played by Lily Gladstone, the actor with Native American heritage who also appears in a key role in Reichardt’s previous film, Certain Women (2016). I’m not sure yet what this presentation of indigenous women really means in this film, except that it was the European men who messed things up first. But were the European women who followed complicit? And we mustn’t forget the presence of the East Asian men.
I’ve seen some reviews which don’t accept that First Cow is a Western at all. I would disagree. I know Western scholars tend to see the key period setting for the genre as 1865-1895, but the underlying themes of the Western run across the whole development of the United States and across those of the other nation states with similar human and physical geography. First Cow is a wonderful addition to the history of the Western and it prompts me to think about a whole series of other Westerns which I’ll get to at some point. The film has been acquired for UK distribution by MUBI which should see some cinema screenings and then availability on MUBI’s screening service. Not to be missed!
A familiar East Asian family melodrama, the family in Moving On comprises three generations, including two pairs of siblings. Young teenager Ok-ju (Choi Jung-woon) and her little brother Dong-ju (Park Seung-joon) have to move out of their home with their father at the start of the summer holidays. It looked to me as if most of the houses in the street have been condemned for some kind of urban renewal. But it’s also clear that Dad is short of money after his separation/divorce. He does at least have a small van/people carrier which he uses as his base for selling shoes by the roadside. He takes his children and the family’s worldly goods to his father’s house – a quite palatial old building by comparison. Grandad is retired and has been taken to hospital, possibly suffering from heatstroke but he is required to have a scan as a precaution. There is plenty of room in the old house – just as well because soon Dad’s sister turns up, pursued a few days later by the husband she is trying to escape. He is sent away and the new family unit begins to work out a way of living together.
Moving On is the début film of writer-director Yoon Dan-bi, one of several young women making a splash in South Korean cinema in recent years. I’ve called this film a melodrama, mainly because it is a drama of relationships within a family and because, although fresh in itself, it calls to mind similar family dramas from across the region in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong and China. It isn’t a melodrama of ‘excess’ but it does include a few potent songs and even a couple of spirited dances by Dong-ju. The old house plays an important role in the film and there is a real feel for the possibilities of mise en scène. It is a two story house with a wood-panelled interior and internal doors on the staircase that demarcate the upstairs and downstairs worlds. Ok-ju is quick to claim the upstairs bedroom and to keep out her brother, though she does allow her aunt to join her later. The house also has a balcony that overlooks the lush walled garden. I think it is also important that there are many scenes of the family cooking and eating together. I read a Korean-based reviewer who suggests that the location is the port city of Inchon and I suspect that the house is representative of a more traditional Korean family home in an area of narrow streets and houses with high-walled gardens. The film certainly appears to have made an impression winning several awards at mainly East Asian festivals.
The time period of the summer holidays provides both space for each of the characters to reflect on their situation and an end point on which they must focus. Father Byunggi (Yang Heung-joo) is attempting to study so that he can get a well-paid job, Ok-ju has a tentative relationship with a boy who lives some distance away. She is also just beginning to develop adolescent anxieties about her looks, especially her eyes which she thinks need to be ‘fixed’ by plastic surgery. Dong-ju is a lively small boy who simply enjoys each day as it comes, but he does want to see his mother – who is clearly out of favour with Ok-ju. The aunt Mijung (Park Hyun-young) has separated from her husband and is contemplating divorce. But the pressing situation which underpins many of the other discussions is Grandad’s deteriorating health. If Byunggi and Mijung get jobs, they will need to hire a carer for him and the children will also bear some of the burden. They look into the possibility of a care home but Ok-ju is shocked by this and by the prospect of the house being sold. Ok-ju gradually becomes the central character of the narrative with a couple of (mis)adventures of her own and in the closing section of the film there is a moving scene in which we appear to be experiencing Ok-ju dreaming. The whole closing sequence is emotional and I felt, very convincing. It is worth noting that the last three shots, as the closing music begins, are of the house interior, the clothesline on the balcony and the garden.
Since Moving On appeared in the same Borderlines Festival programme as Minari it is difficult not to compare them. Although the two films are very different in some ways, they do have characters and situations which correspond. Though Moving On is a début feature, I found it more satisfying. Minari seems to ask big questions but I didn’t feel so engaged with the family. Moving On has been seen as one of the best South Korean films of the year and its strength is in the attention to detail and the feel for the characters. All of the performances are good but I must pick out Choi Jung-woon as Ok-ju. She manages a wide array of emotional moments with aplomb. I’d also pick out and also the cinematography of Kim Ji-hyeon. I’ve read different reviews and in one the writer complained that Yoon Dan-bi was being compared to Kore-eda Hirokazu and that this takes away from her own distinctive approach. I can see the point being made but I think it is inevitable that if you have watched films over many years by Ozu Yasijuro and by Hou Hsiao-hsien and Edward Yang as well as Kore-eda, you will marvel at how Yoon Dan-bi, not yet 30 when she made this feature, has been able to to present a family drama with such sensitivity and capture relationships with authenticity. In the clip below the trailer (the film is now playing on MUBI you’ll find a short film exploring the ‘Women Directors Leading South Korean Cinema Into its Next Century’. There are 10 of them and Yoon Dan-bi is the first featured. I’m also pleased that two more of the directors appear on this blog with their films House of Hummingbird (2019) and The House of Us (2019). South Korean cinema has much to offer international audiences and it’s great to see these women coming forward.
Comedies are often the most difficult films to write about and foreign language comedies or even same language comedies from different cultures are more difficult still. This is certainly the case with How to Be a Good Wife. Cineuropa has labelled the film an ‘arthouse comedy’ which I find a little puzzling. This seems to me to be a mainstream film in terms of genre and narrative structure. The only things ‘arty’ about it are some of the cultural references for audiences outside France, including the concept of the farce. I can’t think of another film with quite the same mix of elements though the romcom/sports film Populaire (France-Belgium 2012) has some of the elements and is even photographed by Guillaume Schiffman who shot How to Be a Good Wife. I’ve also seen references to some of Francois Ozon’s work such as Potiche (France-Belgium 2010). But with Potiche we enter discussions about well-known auteurs and there are some reviews that suggest that How to Be a Good Wife is simply not in the same class and that Ozon or Pedro Almodóvar would do a better job.
Here is the plot outline of How to Be a Good Wife which features Juliette Binoche, Yolande Moreau and Noémie Lvovsky – all excellent. It is the start of the school year in September 1967 and at a small private school for ‘young ladies’ in Alsace the three teachers are awaiting the somewhat reduced number of girls for the current session. This is one of the many such French institutions that taught girls to be fabulous homemakers and dutiful wives and mothers, but little else. The headteacher Paulette (Binoche) is married to the school’s owner who does little except spy on the girls, otherwise the couple’s relationship is not going well. His sister Gilberte (Moreau) is not married and pines for love. The hardest-working of the trio is Sister Marie-Thérèse. The film has two conventional themes. One is surviving as an institution and the other is the prospect of romance and liberation for Paulette and Gilberte – and for the 17 year-old students. For this, the timing is crucial because the school year will run through to May 1968 when an annual school trip to Paris is scheduled. Feminism is just beginning to creep into the mindset of the wider public in France and the film includes several direct references to the changes that are happening. It also includes a couple of historical references to the aftermath of war and one incident that some audiences may find shocking in the context of what seems a frothy comedy. This insertion of some ‘serious’ elements has been a factor for critics and reviewers to claim that the satire on political and social change is badly handled.
The film’s director is Martin Provost who co-wrote the script with Séverine Werba. Provost has built a reputation with four previous features each focusing on a woman as the central character. Seraphine (2008), Violette (2013) and The Midwife (2017) all made an impact but not in UK cinemas. Yolande Moreau played the painter at the centre of the biopic of Séraphine Louis, Emmanuelle Devois played the writer Violette Leduc and The Midwife featured Catherine Frot and Catherine Deneuve. This use of well-known stars and star-actors attracted audiences in France. The current film was released in France in 2020 and the whole release, both domestic and international, has been somewhat curtailed by the pandemic.
What to make of it? I enjoyed the film and in particular the three central performances. La Binoche has what seems like a lot of fun. There is a fourth character who offers Paulette romance. He is played, again with gusto, by Edouard Baer. The film is bookended by two set pieces. In the first, Paulette introduces the the new girls to the school’s curriculum which will teach them the important lessons of becoming a homemaker, wife and mother. She does this formally using a blackboard and teacher address. At the end of the film she repeats the procedure but in the form of a musical number which some have dubbed a ‘Jacques Demy’ take-off. I love Demy and I thought this was fun. I suppose the question is whether younger audiences who have no knowledge of the 1960s ‘liberation’ of women and young people generally, will respond to the ways in Provost stages many of the scenes. I don’t see why not. There are several important messages delivered quite cleverly. I’m sure it’s still a revelation that up to this period a woman couldn’t open a back account without a husband’s consent. The film did remind me in some ways of British boarding school comedies of the 1950s in the way that the context brings the students and teachers together. Schools like the ‘École Ménagère Van Der Beck’ (domestic science school) were still relatively numerous in France up to 1967, but none survived after 1968.
This film is in a CinemaScope ratio and the bright colours show off 1960s ideas about fashion. The music score by Grégoire Hetzel seemed to work for me. I’m sure there were some contemporary songs played diegetically but I can’t find the titles. The girls in the school, with a handful picked out for brief narratives of their own, are well cast and believable as 60s young women. I would say that this is an enjoyable mainstream film but I recognise that for some it’s Marmite – something to love or to hate. I hope I’ve given you enough insight to make up your own mind. I don’t think the film has a UK distributor yet.
Here’s the Australian trailer (with more spoilers than given above):
Independent films set in Jammu and Kashmir seem to be appearing more often on the festival circuit. This is an unusual film that draws inspiration from various sources. It presents a folkloric tale in a modern context with a narrative divided into seven chapters, each titled with a song. The songs are from a variety of sources around the Himalayan region and the film is influenced by Sufism. The focus is on a community of shepherds who range across a wide area from Northern India and Kashmir and Ladakh to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Now recognised as a ‘scheduled tribe’ in India, the Bakarwali are Muslims. As is common in South Asia, they are also seen as part of a bigger group that includes Gujjars, more associated with North Indian states such as Rajasthan. The writer-director of the film is Pushpendra Singh. He was born in Agra and attended FTII in Pune, initially training as an actor but later moving into direction and this is his fourth feature which premiered at the Berlinale in 2020 and was shown in festivals in Calcutta and Kerala before lockdown denied an expected run in PVR multiplexes. The director was able to introduce his film and to offer a Q&A at Borderlines.
He explains how the original idea came about:
I had read the folktale in 2010 and was fascinated that Vijaydan Detha [a well-known Marxist writer from Rajasthan] wrote a feminist story in the late 1960s which also dealt with desire and exploitation and how a woman in a conservative feudal society asserts herself and makes her own choices. The idea to adapt it to contemporary times was also a strong drive to choose the subject. (Quoted in a Variety piece by Naman Ramachandran, 26 November 2020)
Pushpendra Singh decided to rework the story in a contemporary political context by locating it in Kashmir and he also decided to take inspiration from the the poetry of 14th century Kashmiri mystic Lalleshwari, also known as Lalla or Lal Ded.
The Barkarwali are nomadic shepherds and goatherds who practice annual transhumance, taking their flocks up into the Himalayas in the summer months and returning to bed down in the winter. Their traditions don’t recognise boundaries, but in the contested territory of Kashmir they find themselves being harried by Indian security officials who demand more stringent forms of identity. This is personalised when, during the summer move, the shepherd Tanvir finds a bride in the form of Laila. Tradition demands that he show his strength as a future husband and then ask for her hand. It is when the group return from the mountains that they realise how much has changed. Tanvir is accused of bringing a wife across the border illegally. The Barkarwali don’t recognise borders or ‘lines of control’ – or at least they pay them lip service – but the local police chief demands that they get proper ID cards. He also has designs on Laila. She will have none of it. Both the crossing borders and the potential ‘possession’ of Laila are metaphors for the control of Kashmir as well as male power directed towards women.
The narrative then moves into a kind of folklore farce. The police chief’s assistant Mushtaq assures his boss that he can ‘tame’ Laila and bring her to his chief. Or does he simply want her for himself? She is quite prepared to play a game, but only on her own terms and leads the men on, fooling her husband and frustrating Mushtaq. The Seven Songs take us through the stages of a kind of marital comedy. The folklore elements also produce moments of symbolism. A large tree bursts into flame from a gaping hole in the trunk as a sexual symbol. The end of the film makes a dramatic reference to the 14th century poet and the clear inference is that Laila will not accept the identities that men attempt to force upon her.
The film is very beautiful and I wish I knew more about the music. Navjot Randhawa gives a strong performance as Laila. Most of the other performers are local and non-professional apart from Shahnawaz Bhat who has appeared in other films. I’m not sure if the film has got UK distribution, but if it does appear it is recommended.
This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.
The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.
I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.
Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.
The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.
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.