Dubai-born Sudanese director Amjad Abu Alala’s debut, You Will Die at Twenty, is only the eighth fiction feature film ever produced in Sudan and the first to be submitted to the Academy Awards. For 30 years, Sudan’s artists and filmmakers were silenced under Omar al-Bashir’s religious regime, which ended with a coup d’état in 2019.
Earning Abu Alala the ‘Lion of the Future‘ prize for best debut feature at the Venice Film Festival, the film centres on a mother who takes her newborn to the sheikh for blessing, only for the holy man to predict that her son will die on his 20th birthday. The father leaves them alone to go and find work away from their village, and so mother and son begin their life in a society full of superstitions.
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From the start, Abu Alala’s passion for cinema is readily apparent. He orchestrates marvellous Sudanese vistas, while making exhilarating use of sound. In one scene, there’s an immersive texture to striking shots of women singing and dancing at a wedding. His love for his native country and its culture also shapes the film, with references to daily life and mentions of a free Sudan before 1989.
There’s a brilliant moment in which well-travelled local cinematographer Suleiman (Mahmoud Elsaraj) screens Sudanese filmmaker Jadallah Jubara’s documentary Khartoum (1960) to young lead Muzamil (Mustafa Shehata). In the flickering light of the projector, Muzamil sees people dancing at a party – scenes that are unknown to his eyes.
Abu Alala started filming You Will Die at Twenty in his father’s religious Sufi village where he used to go on vacation as a child. It’s a remote village located in the Al Jazirah state in the north of Sudan, bordering Egypt. It’s also the childhood village of banned Sudanese writer Hammour Ziada whose short story ‘Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain’ was the inspiration of Abu Alala’s film.
When filming kicked off in late 2018, the country’s revolution was just starting in Atbara. Then in April 2019, when Sudan ousted the violent regime of al-Bashir, Abu Alala went to Khartoum where he and most members from his filming crew stayed. At that same time peaceful demonstrations in the Sudanese city were brutally pulled apart by state soldiers.
In the middle of the film’s tumultuous production, members of the film crew were badly beaten by the military, and one of the director’s friends died. As a result, Abu Alala’s film has a close connection to what was happening at the time; naturally, freedom of expression, life without prejudices and superstition became the director’s central themes.
With the making of this brilliant debut, Amjad Abu Alala, who also works as producer and is the head of programming committee at the Sudan Independent Film Festival, sets the projector rolling on a bright new age of Sudanese cinema. And this alone is a perfect reason to celebrate its opening to cinemas in the UK.
What filmmaking experience had you had before making this feature?
I made my first short film in 2001, when I was 19, and since that time I think I’ve been preparing for my first feature. That’s almost 16 years of doing short films as director, producer and writer – I made seven short films as director and eight as producer. I participated in a lot of workshops, including one with Abbas Kiarostami and a writing workshop with Asghar Farhadi. During all those years it was very important to work as a producer too. Making this film in Sudan needed a director who is also producer.
What was it about Hammour Ziada’s short story that inspired you?
What I found in his story is unique. It’s a short story about death and about how people deal with grieving and prophecies in a society where everyone needs to be part of the community. I wanted to talk about how society can put individuals in boxes, but how we can try to open that box. Like the two characters in the story: the film is trying to tell them to open that box and run.
Is the subject of your film autobiographical?
No, I’m not talking about someone in particular. I never heard a sheikh, a holy man, tell a woman, “Your son will die at 20.” This is the story. But there are a lot of things very similar to that. For example, a holy man can tell some women, “You can’t bear a child in your belly because someone doesn’t want you, in the universe.” This kind of stuff. So, I’m talking about how Sudanese people deal with these blind beliefs.
There’s a part of the film that’s about sophism. You can compare it with Christianity, the very spiritual part of it. Sophism is a part of Islam too. It was beautiful for me dealing with sophism, art and music for the film. Even the colour of the film is inspired by it.
Tell us about your research into Sudanese singing and the choices you made for the soundtrack?
This is something very important to me and I hope to explore this field further, in my next films. But for this film, I made a choice that the music will not just be Sudanese.
Part of it is French Tunisian and I chose that because I wanted this part of the film to be international. I worked a lot with live sound too. For example, the music at the beginning, the boat scene and the wedding is live song. There are also old songs played on the radio from Sudan and Egypt. The foreigner who comes from outside listens more to classic Egyptian music. And when we go to the grocery the stuff that we hear more is Sudanese music. I wanted the Sudanese tone of music to be there all the time. But for the soundtrack that we made for the film, I wanted a mix between local and international.
How did you find your cast?
Making a film in a country with no cinema, the first in 20 years, it meant that there is no foundation for that, and no cinema actors. I had to keep an eye on TV and theatre drama for three or four years before filming. I was taking note of great actors like Mahmoud Elsaraj, who played Sulaiman, or Islam Mubarak, who played the mother, and Abdulrahman Alshibly who played the old woman, Aunt Nafisa, who is also very famous in theatre and drama.
At the same time, I wanted to mix them with new blood. I announced a casting call on social media, and that’s how I found Mustafa Shehata (Muzamil). It’s his first time as an actor. Also, it’s how I found Bonna Khalid. She is a Sudanese model and her part in the film is her first acting role. It was very nice working with both professional actors and non-actors. They were all so committed. They were so excited to be in a Sudanese film.
You Will Die at Twenty is in cinemas from 12 November 2021.