The son of death who brought Sudanese cinema to life
On Amjad Abu Alala’s You Will Die at Twenty

Something new is taking shape in Sudan, glimpses of which have been revealed in the news coming out of the country since the beginning of the year. It is as if a world in its entirety is emerging from the shadows and into the glimmering light. With the chants of the crowds that signaled the end of Omar al-Bashir’s authoritarian regime, filmmakers in Sudan were simultaneously instigating their own revolution. In a country that witnessed a decades-long ban on cinema to serve conservative ideological agendas that considered the arts a threat to the state, many young talents are coming out to call an end to this era. 

What we might tentatively call a “new wave” of Sudanese cinema was asserted with the 69th edition of the Berlin International Film Festival, held in February of this year, during which director Suhaib Gasmelbari received the Best Documentary Feature and Audience awards in the Panorama section for his film Talking About Trees (2019). The film follows four veteran Sudanese filmmakers from the pre-digital era as they try to revive the country’s cinematic culture, like a phoenix emerging from the ashes of Bashir’s Sudan. The documentary feature Khartoum Offside, directed by Marwa Zein, also made its debut at the festival. It is a feminist story about a group of girls intent on playing football despite societal restrictions on women in particular and anyone challenging the dominant culture in general. The two films were preceded by Hajouj Kouka’s first narrative feature, Akasha (2018), set in the rebel-held Nuba Mountains in the province of South Kordofan, which screened at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival.

In continuation of this wave, the 76th edition of the Venice Film Festival — which took place from August 28 to September 7 — witnessed the premiere of You Will Die at Twenty, Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala’s first narrative film, which ended up winning the festival’s Lion of the Future award for best debut feature. The film also just won the Golden Star for best narrative feature at the Gouna Film Festival, which closed on September 27. A co-production between Sudan, France, Egypt, Germany and Norway, it took three years to complete, and is the most expensive production in the history of Sudanese cinema, with a budget of almost US$1 million. 

In his newest adventure, Abu Alala returns from a seven-year hiatus after his last film, a short titled Studio (2012), which he made in the context of a filmmaking workshop headed by the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Pouring in years of accumulated experience and careful preparation, the director managed to make Sudan’s first film in two decades, amid rough political conditions, not to mention the social complications of making a film in a place where cinema viewership has a long history, but cinema production does not. 

In 102 minutes, Abu Alala manages to portray a deeply authentic Sudanese tale, incorporating personal elements and taking the local setting as the starting point for a foray into the mythical worlds embedded in the Sudanese landscape. Based on the short story Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain (2014) by award-winning author Hammour Ziada, the script was developed by the filmmaker in collaboration with Emirati screenwriter Youssef Ibrahim, with whom he had previously worked on various projects. 

Fantasy has appeared to be a defining feature of Abu Alala’s cinematic oeuvre from his earliest experiments, particularly the short film Bird Feathers (2005), which garnered considerable critical acclaim, despite its technical shortcomings. Featuring two superstars of Sudanese drama, the acclaimed Faiza Amsib and Hala Agha (in one of her most remarkable roles to date), the film was often shown on TV, familiarizing audiences with Abu Alala’s name. 

Despite its short runtime, there is plenty to follow in Bird Feathers, as it includes early features of the visual language that Abu Alala goes on to develop more fully in You Will Die at Twenty. A  contemporary take on Kind Fatna and the Ghoul — a popular Sudanese folk tale belonging to the genre affectionately referred to in Sudan as “grandmothers’ stories” — the earlier work tackles themes like first love and estranged parents in a world where mythic threads meet the mundane realities of a modest modern life. Visual elements include the vast expanse of the fields and the Nile, gas lamps as lighting sources, and traditional tools, such as the tins used for cooking over wood fires, are all present in Bird Feathers and employed with more sophistication in You Will Die at Twenty. In his new film, Abu Alala’s camera renders a gripping visual manifestation of Ziada’s magical realism, a major feature of the celebrated author’s work, which evokes the world of rural Sudan: simple in structure, yet highly complex in its social and spiritual dimensions, with all their Sufist and metaphysical entailments. 

Abu Alala tells the story of a “cursed” child named Muzamil (played by Moatasem Rashed as a child and Mustafa Shehata as an adult). To the boy’s parents’ misfortune and dismay, a Sufi sheikh who visits their modest village in the state of Gezira with his dervishes prophesies that their son will not live beyond 20. In a rural community where such proclamations are indisputable, Muzamil’s entire childhood and adolescence are turned into a long, ceaseless anticipation of death. His father, powerless at altering his child’s fate, is driven to leave the country in search of work (or so he tells everyone, including himself), leaving Muzamil with a mother who spends her child’s presumably short life in a state of preemptive mourning, constantly dressed in black. 

Mirroring the village’s total submission to the perceived supernatural powers of Sufi saints, Abu Alala’s camera moves among the unpaved alleys, the mud houses and the fields overlooking the Nile. The environment of the village, as well as the behavior of its inhabitants, are the same in 2019 as they would have been five centuries earlier — the isolation of the town of Abu Hiraz, where most of the film was shot, is only broken by the presence of cars and radios.

This isolation, coupled with the premonition of death crippling Muzamil’s family and his mother’s overprotective attention, do not shield him from being bullied or from the townspeople’s persistent, sorrowful reminders that he is a “son of death.” Obsessed with listening to others’ heartbeats as they sleep to make sure they don’t beat him to the grave, he never questions what is meant to be, with no acknowledgment whatsoever of a free human will that might be capable of changing fate. His only way to live, therefore, in a village where the palm trees’ height is only surpassed by the domes of its saints’ mausoleums, is to prepare for the afterlife by praying and serving in the village mosque and studying the Quran. The way Muzamil’s life is portrayed can be seen as a visual interpretation of a verse in one of the Sudanese poet and musician Mustafa Sayed Ahmed (Am Abdel Rehim)’s songs: “You are governed by the grave.” 

This defeated spirit comes close to depleting the appeal of the film’s central characters: Muzamil, his father, al-Nour (played by Talal Afifi, founder and director of the Sudan Independent Film Festival), as well as the mother, Sakina (an exceptional performance by Islam Mubarak), if not for the dramatic turn the film takes with a time leap after its first quarter, taking us straight from Muzamil’s childhood to the few months before he turns 20. As al-Nour returns after years of estrangement to take part in choosing his son’s grave and join his mother in the shroud-making ritual, three other characters are introduced, igniting a spark of rebellion within the young Muzamil against the fateful prophecy that has been consuming his life. 

The first of these characters is the neighbors’ daughter, Naima (the promising Buna Khaled), Muzamil’s childhood friend and love interest, who had always been a refuge for the boy. With romantic impulsiveness, she challenges the prophecy and entangles herself in a relationship with him, and she remains the initiating party throughout. A vibrant woman filled with an unstoppable joie-de-vivre, she tries to snatch Muzamil from his passive acceptance of death, hoping to awaken within him the primitive instinct for life for the sake of their impossible love. 

Another unique female character is Sitt al-Nisa (Amal Mustafa) — whose name, true to her character, means “the lady of all women” — in whom Abu Alala combines a myriad of marginalized woman archetypes: the henna artist, the traditional beautician, the servant, the qouna (shaabi singer), and, of course, the sex worker. Abu Alala dissects the village’s class and racial structure through this one character, who is a resident of al-Kambo, the makeshift neighborhood where the descendents of freed slaves and laborers from the west and the south of Sudan live, their existence on the peripheries of society allowing them liberation from its traditional values and norms. It is where illegal alcohol is made and sold, and women live on prostitution and singing gigs in the nearby village. 

The biggest turning point in Muzamil’s life occurs with the return of another immigrant: Suleiman (veteran theater actor Mahmoud al-Sarraj), Sitt al-Nisa’s lover and the village’s prodigal son, who revolts against the community’s conservative and superstitious ways. It is the reason why, as a young man, Suleiman took off to Khartoum as soon as the opportunity presented itself, and only returned to the village in his older years, with a considerable measure of reluctance. In Khartoum, he worked as a professional cinematographer and developed a passion for the arts, then followed the path of the Nile to Egypt, and from there went on to Europe. Suleiman inevitably evokes the character of Mustafa Said, the protagonist of Tayeb Salih’s famous 1966 novel Season of Migration to the North, minus the postcolonial rhetoric. To the contrary, Suleiman is heavy with persistent nostalgia for the time of his youth in British Sudan — and a searing contempt for the present, which, ironically, appears stuck in even more ancient times.

Gradually, Suleiman, a childhood friend of Muzamil’s father, fills the space left by the young man’s absent parent, introducing him to the world beyond the village. It all begins when a disgruntled Muzamil, who works at the village convenience store, has to deliver a bottle of arak to a customer — a man whose behavior and opinions are different from everyone else in the village. Symbolically, his house boasts a clearly colonial architectural style, setting him apart from the local community, as he is a man who pays no heed to the rules that govern it: He is an alcoholic who is always listening to foreign music and whose lover, Sitt al-Nisa, frequently sleeps over at his place even though they are unmarried (to her disappointment — after all, he is a well-bred man who’d spent years in the streets and pubs of Europe, while she is merely a woman from al-Kambo). 

All of these contradictions start to stir questions and doubts in the pious Muzamil, who tries to steer Suleiman away from his sinful life by lecturing him about morals, even as he supplies him with alcohol. He invites Suleiman to a Quran recital in his mosque, which Suleiman eventually attends, even though he watches from the window, never actually entering the mosque. “I told my father, why would I ever memorize such a giant book? He beat the hell out of me! It was only a few years later that I fled,” Suleiman recalls to Muzamil one night. As soon as he learns of the prophecy that has Muzamil practically waiting for his own death, Suleiman begins urging Muzamil to leave the village and the death sentence it imposed on him behind. He teaches him basic math, speaks to him about women and sex, and provocatively denounces the puratanical life the much younger man had led. His argument is simple: If you’re going to die soon, then you should spend your final days in pleasure — for how can one claim virtue without ever coming into contact with vice?

The irony in young Muzamil’s relationship with the old Suleiman is that the latter is the one who represents the progressive ideals of freedom and modernity in the equation, while Muzamil remains a prisoner of custom and tradition. In his attempts to bring the boy out of the darkness, Suleiman opens the door to a new, magical world, which Muzamil enters in awe. That world is Suleiman’s old films and projector, cinema being a classical refuge for the imagination and a perfect escape from an oppressive reality. This is the central statement Abu Alala tries to make, not only by producing a film within such a challenging political and social context, but also through the unlikely relationship at the heart of his story between the young reciter of the Quran and the old filmmaker. 

Abu Alala’s film is filled with homages that stem from his own personal experience. As a filmmaker who’d struggled for artistic fulfilment ever since he dropped out of law school to study mass media in the United Arab Emirates, he borrows certain themes, stylistic choices — and sometimes actual scenes —  from the films of other directors that have influenced his work, using his film to pay them tribute. For instance, there’s Sudanese filmmaker Jadallah Jubara, whose documentary shots of Khartoum before sharia law we see on Suleiman’s screen as he tells Muzamil about the capital. Suleiman also shows Muzamil scenes from Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station (1958), presenting the late Egyptian star Hend Rostom as the ultimate femme fatale. That is in addition to several scenes in which the compositions clearly simulate the work of iconic auteurs such as Theo Angelopoulos’ Weeping Meadow trilogy (2004), which inspired the scene of the dervishes crossing the Nile in their sailboats. And, of course, it’s hard to overlook Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso (1988) since we’re talking about the relationship between a boy discovering a new world and an old man in love with the movies.

The combination of Abu Alala’s directorial vision and the high production value take You Will Die at Twenty to artistic territories never before charted by a Sudanese film. A remarkable attention to detail is clear in the local specificity of the costumes and production design, creating a vivid spectacle out of Sudanese folkloric rituals, such as zaar (exorcisms), Sufi chanting sessions and henna during weddings, although some of the scenes depicting such practices come off a bit too long and slightly exaggerated. The percussive music also plays a pivotal role by complementing the imagery, with an unusual score by the Tunisian Amine Bouhafa, who won a César Award for his work in Mauritanian director Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu (2014). The filmmakers don’t fail to insert the protest song “Ya Shaaban Lahbat Thawreitak” (O, People, Your Revolutionary Spirit is Aflame), their own salute to the Sudanese uprising, which erupted while the crew was busy with their own revolution in the fields of Gezira. 

Yet the film’s biggest asset remains the stellar performances of its cast, many of whom made their screen debut in the film. Islam Mubarak and Buna Khaled particularly stand out, while Mahmoud al-Sarraj gives a sophisticated performance in his best role after years in theater and TV. This, however, stands as a testimony to the Abu Alala’s meticulousness in directing his actors, aided by Egyptian actress Salwa Mohamed Ali as an acting coach, as well as a script reading with acclaimed Egyptian actor Mahmoud Hemeida. 

You Will Die at Twenty is a cinematic serenade that celebrates elements of Sudanese culture, albeit from a critical perspective, inciting rebellion against the shackles of tradition and superstition. It provokes viewers to reject the notion of a pre-imposed destiny, whatever that may be; the film also presents immigration as the only option when individuals becomes powerless to lead the lives they want in their homeland. And although the film is heavy with grief and darkened by the shadow of death, it resembles a kiss of life to Sudanese cinema, which had been dormant for twenty years — as though the number that was prophesied to end Muzamil’s life has also come to symbolize the birth of this new cinematic wave, a wave that will live — forever — at twenty.

Hussam Hilali 

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