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.
Akasha or aKasha (the ’round-up’) is a gentle comedy about young men and women in the midst of the long-running civil war in Sudan. Writer-director Hajooj Kuka won prizes for his documentary feature Beats of the Antonov (2014) and this feature returns him to the same conflict with the same backing from South African production company Big World Cinema (which also backed Rafiki from Kenya). Big World Cinema has been effective in getting films from across Africa into major international festivals and this one appeared at Venice, Toronto and London in 2018. We watched the film as part of Black History Month at the same venue where we saw Beats of the Antonov back in July. Again there were members of the local Sudanese community in Bradford in the audience. This time they were nearly all women which makes me wonder if the men knew something about the film. One of the features of the earlier film was the director’s interest in the culture of the young women in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile regions of Sudan, fighting against the regime in Khartoum.
The film begins with a pre-credit scene in which we learn that the civil war has a forced ‘time out’ during the rainy season when the churned-up mud tracks make movement difficult. The soldiers in the rebel army are given time off to help their families. The ’round-up’ then begins to bring the soldiers back for the next round of action and the film’s narrative follows two young men who attempt to avoid being called back. We first discover Adnan (Kamal Ramadan) in bed with his girlfriend Lina (Ekram Marcus) but when she sees another woman’s name carved onto the stock of Adnan’s AK-47 she throws him out, believing he has been sleeping around. Adnan finds himself outside the compound without his gun and without a belt to hold up his uniform trousers. But he does come across Absi (Ganja Chakado), a city boy who has so far avoided a call-up. The two bond quickly and hatch a plan to retrieve the gun and to avoid the local commander Kuku Blues (Abdallah Alnur) who is already hauling young men back into uniform. The plan involves dressing as local women. Meanwhile the young women in the village are preparing for a wedding. Those are the ingredients of the plot with ample opportunities for jokes and sight gags.
Most of the gags are basic and universally accessible but Hajooj Kuka sets out to satirise the military pretensions of the men and to boost both the intelligence and the wit of the young women. A couple of carefully placed objects (a copy of Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and a poster of Angela Davis and other Black leaders) suggest that Lina is far more aware than Adnan who will later have to eat humble pie when his ‘warrior’ status is revealed as a sham.
Hajooj Kuka was initially known for his camerawork and with his cinematographer Giovanni P. Autran he creates some attractive landscapes around the village and into the hills. With characters often seen in long shot moving through the landscape (including chase sequences) the film seems to refer back to quite a few of the internationally-distributed West African films of the 1970s and 1980s. At one point Absi borrows a motorbike and I wondered if the resulting images were a nod to Touki Bouki (Senegal 1973). Closer examination shows the bike to be a Chinese model from Senke. A little later, Adnan sets off for the hills and has an ‘experience’ with hallucinogenic flowerheads. Jokes about ‘stoners’ and dope smoking are told by Kuku Blues, possibly in order to demonstrate his ‘hipness’ – but readings like this are dependent on subtitling. I wondered if this too was a nod towards the ‘Return to Source’ African films of the 1980s. Mostly though the film is a gentle comedy that makes some interesting social comments on gender identity and modern culture for young black Sudanese men and women. The Civil War is currently on hold after the dictator was deposed in April 2019 and peace talks with the new regime are underway. It would be good to think that films like this in future can focus on the comedy (and the music) without worrying about the recall to arms.
Talking About Trees is a wonderful film that manages to tell a sad story but to imbue it with the energy and the warm human feeling of its remarkable central characters. A ‘first feature’ documentary by Suhaib Gasmelbari, it won a prize at Berlin this year and has been acquired for UK distribution by New Wave Films. Do try and get to see it if it comes your way. You are unlikely to be disappointed.
There are two narratives woven together here. The main ‘driver’ is the attempt by the ‘Sudan Film Group’ to revive a cinema culture in Sudan where cinema-going was effectively banished by the regime which came to power after the military coup of 1989. The film group comprises four of the Sudanese filmmakers who were trained abroad in the 1970s and who returned to produce the first Sudanese films. Now in their late 60s they travel to villages around Khartoum offering ‘pop-up’ film shows using a laptop and a small digital projector. But their aim is to rent one of the large and virtually abandoned cinemas in Omdurman and show contemporary films to mass audiences. But to do this they must navigate the bureaucracies which remain reluctant to see cinema return (the film was made before Omar al-Bashir was deposed earlier this year.). While they work on trying to organise a large scale screening, the old friends also begin to excavate the history of Sudanese cinema, finding scratchy old copies of their own films and VHS tapes that were part of their collections of global cinema. One of the four is also engaged in making a film with his smartphone about his experience of being imprisoned and interrogated at the time of the coup. The history of what actually happened around 1989 is told in subtle ways, so we see the filmmakers being interviewed for a radio programme in which the interviewer is gently corrected about the demise of cinema in Sudan. It didn’t die of natural causes, it was shot.
What the film also usefully reveals is that Sudan experienced what happened across much of sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and 1970s, especially in francophone countries. Talented young filmmakers (mostly young men) were able to travel to film schools abroad, often to Paris but also to the Soviet Union. Sudan had been under British control before 1956 but hadn’t been fully part of the British approach to documentary which was the legacy in Ghana or Kenya for example. (This website account suggests that there was a British colonial film legacy even if limited.) Instead in the 1970s the Sudanese went to the USSR or Germany or France. There they learned how to make the kinds of politically charged ‘Third Cinema’ films which won prizes and sometimes gained a form of international distribution as well as attracting local audiences. In one scene we see a filmmaker now in his late sixties phoning a Russian film archive to see if they have a copy of the film he made as a young man. To place this in perspective we also see a phone call to a European company that sells cinema screens – we learn just how much it might cost to re-equip one of the Sudan’s big (outdoor) cinemas. Across Africa traditional cinemas have closed over the last 25 years, mostly because people now watch films on satellite TV or forms of digital video and cinemas have been bought by churches and wedding entrepreneurs. In Sudan it is the government and a fundamentalist form of Islam that helped to close them.
The film was produced with various European partners and also with support from the Chadian filmmaker Mahamat-Saleh Haroun. One of the films shown by the group to a village audience is Waiting for Happiness (2002) by the Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako and this suggests the solidarity of African filmmakers. These two directors represent the last link to the generation that travelled abroad to study film. Sissako was also in Moscow in the 1980s. Sissako too has been involved in re-opening a cinema in Mali. We do get to see some clips from the films made by the four Sudanese filmmakers back in the 1970s and 1980s and the documentary’s title refers to one of these.
We’ll have the chance to see Talking About Trees again in West Yorkshire at the Leeds International Film Festival in November. I hope it proves popular. I do worry that its one weakness is that it takes a little time to get going for audiences not already au fait with the history of cinema in Africa. Some of the later scenes in which the old filmmakers talk to young footballers and spectators about what they want to see in a re-opened cinema are very lively and engaging. What the young people (and older people) want to see are contemporary films from America or India, something which leads the Sudan Film Group to consider showing Tarantino’s Django Unchained (US 2012). There are, I think, at least two commercial cinemas operating in Khartoum which have internet listings. I assume that these attract a middle-class wealthy patrons but it would be good to hear from anyone who knows the cinema scene in Khartoum. If you want to know more about how Africa Cinema developed in the 1970s, try to find a copy of Caméra d’Afrique directed by Férid Boughedir in 1983.
This shortish documentary feature (68 mins) was screened as part of Bradford’s Refugee Week with various intros and post-screening comments from members of the local Sudanese community in the city. The screen at the Delius Arts Centre is located in front of the stained glass windows of the late 19th century German church in the city (which still holds a service once a month, I think?). Bradford received many German migrants in the late 19th century and now it receives migrants from Africa and West Asia. It’s great to live in a city that welcomes those who need to move here for whatever reason.
Beats of the Antonov is a film by the Sudanese cinematographer and now director Hajooj Kuka who was educated in Beirut and in the US and who seems now to live between several places. He returned to Sudan to make this film with the backing of South African producer Steven Markovitz, who has helped bring many African stories to the screen. There has been plenty going on in Sudan since 2014 and the regime of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir who had held power since 1989 was finally ended in April this year after waves of protest in Sudanese cities. The situation is still highly volatile. This film is about the attempts by the al-Bashir regime to crush the resistance of the people of the Blue Nile and the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan. The conflict is still live today. This area is now on the Southern border of Sudan since the partition of the country which created South Sudan in 2011 and there are refugees from the South in the area.
The film’s clever title refers to both the bombs dropped on villages by Antonov transport aircraft and Russian-built jet fighters and the music produced by the people on the ground as their means of solidifying their resistance and maintaining their strong community bonds. Hajooj Kuka started out thinking he was making a film about refugees and bombings but discovered a form of music and songs that he had never heard before (see the clip below). The music is produced using improvised musical instruments and many of the songs celebrate the everyday lives of the people of small communities under attack.
As filming progressed it became clear that the musical culture of these villages was all tied up with the fundamental question of ‘identity’ in Khartoum. Sudan is a large geographical area that contains many groups with different language cultures, different religious beliefs and a strong sense of identity. The Ottoman Empire and then the British Imperial administrations from 1899 up to Sudanese independence shifted between policies that either maintained or attempted to obliterate regional differences. Since 1956 there has been an attempt to ‘standardise’ Sudanese culture as Arabic-speaking and Islamic, something generally resisted by peoples from different backgrounds calling for recognition of their individual cultural identities. Kuka himself explains in the second clip below how he soon became aware of the importance of this in the mountains and how he started to reflect on his own identity. There are several comments in the film by local people about their ‘split’ identity between local and national ‘Sudanese’. One example that Kuka explores is the ‘girls’ music’ sung by some of the young women in the villages. The elders don’t like this music because it isn’t ‘traditional’, but neither is it like the commercial pop music played in Khartoum. The ‘girls’ compose their own lyrics about their lives sung to simple tunes. The dilemma for the local people is how to preserve one identity but not become ‘second-class citizens’ in a national sense. But in the meantime, how do they fight against the bombers? The film does include footage of the paramilitary forces of the SPLA (Sudan People’s Liberation Army).
This is a remarkable film that Hajooj Kaka made with the people of the region and which he has now taken around the world since its showing at Toronto in 2014. Not surprisingly it provoked lots of comments from the Sudanese in the audience in Bradford, including one from the area in question. The complicated political history of the country and its current issues are very important for the Sudanese people and their families in the UK. It was a privilege to be part of the audience and to very much enjoy the film – and also to realise just how much there still is to learn about British imperialist and colonialist practices in Africa and their role in the damaged future lives of ex-colonial subjects.