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'You Will Die at Twenty': Sudan’s First Entry to the Oscars

‘You Will Die at Twenty’ tells the story of a village by the Nile.

‘You Will Die at Twenty’ is filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala’s debut feature-length film and Sudan’s first Oscar entry for the Best International Film category. The film is the eighth narrative feature to be filmed in Sudan and the first to be filmed in twenty years.

There were Countless challenges that hindered the film industry in Sudan. But against all odds, ‘You Will Die in Twenty’ made it to the big screen. It premiered in 2019 at Venice Film Festival and won the Lion of the Future Award. Since then, the film continued to gain awards and recognition.

Each scene was carefully painted. Each scene spoke cinematic poetry and articulated the need for more Sudanese visual stories. After all, Sudan is this place that can create a majestic amalgam between the Arab and the African experience. This was effectively conveyed in the simple, but the rich narrative that ‘You Will Die at Twenty’ tells.

On January 22nd, ‘You Will Die at Twenty’ opened in the Virtual Cinema and is now available for the American Audience. The film tells the story of Muzamil who endures the ramifications of a holy man’s curse for the rest of the twenty years he was predicted to live. In my interview with Amjad Abu Alala, we speak about the story and the story behind the story.

How challenging was the filming of ‘You Will Die at Twenty’?

Amjad: The challenges started with the initial decision of wanting to make a film in Sudan. Sudan has no film infrastructure. The last time a narrative was filmed in Sudan was 20 years ago. You will find talented professionals who would do advertisements, public screening announcements, and corporate films for NGOs but not for film.

I used to meet film enthusiasts at Sudan Independent Film Festival. They would be the ones who work in commercials and corporates. There, I would be choosing my crew and also casting my actors.

But even the professional cast did not necessarily have previous experience with the cinema. They would be professionals in TV drama and theater but not in the cinema. So the ultimate challenge was to rebuild a small infrastructure for an industry that will contribute towards the making of a film. Besides, I had to prepare everybody mentally in regards to how much time and preparation a feature-length narrative would require.

Was the Sudanese Revolution happening in parallel?

Amjad: This was a whole other story. The revolution happened during the shooting of my film; by the end of the year 2018. As a consequence, the Sudanese currency was falling down.

Because the revolution was happening en route to the airport, the equipment got stuck in the airport for 10 days. We had to shoot the external scenes for those 10 days without our equipment. We only had the camera, the lenses, and the available light.

All the funders were hesitant about sending us the money. They sometimes had to cancel their transactions because of the sanctions. On other occasions, the money would get stuck and the government would hold it. We were at risk all the time. Having foreign crew; French, Lebanese, Egyptian, and also having Sudanese; most of which were activists, created a whole other layer of complexities. Some people were working closely on the film for two years, and when the political unrest started, they would pull out; only two weeks prior to shooting. They just didn’t believe the film would happen.

How about culturally, were there any difficulties?

Amjad: I guess there was a lack of understanding in regards to what we’re doing. Villagers often welcomed us at the beginning, but then suddenly, they would back off. In fact, we lost five locations in the middle of the shoot. We built our sets, colored them, and then moved to another location and started over. We had to rebuild locations like the mosque, Naiema’s house, and the kids’ school.

How did you choose your cast?

Amjad: Sakina, Islam Mubarak, is considered a professional actor in Sudan. She’s known for her work in TV and Theater. Although she’s considered very accomplished, she showed up for the casting. And that is when I knew; this is my Sakina. Most of the professional actors refused to come to my casting. They had this mentality of “are you coming from Dubai to test us?” But Islam Mubarak came. And I instantly saw Sakina in her.

Islam Mubarak playing Sakina in ‘You Will Die in Twenty’.

Mahmoud Elsarraj was part of my childhood in the 90s. He starred at a famous local and regional show that I closely followed as a kid and then as a teenager. When I was writing the film, I was envisioning him for the role. His image kept popping up as Sulaiman. I was lucky enough to have him join the film.

Naiema, Bonna Khalid, and Muzamil, Mustafa Shehata, are both fresh faces. In fact, Bonna Khalid is a Sudanese model who is now gaining attention. she has been recently casted for a series here in Egypt with Amr Youssef and Saba Mubarak.

Mustafa Shehata playing Muzamil in ‘You Will Die at Twenty’.

What is the significance of doing cinema in Sudan?

Amjad: Sudan is a pivotal location for cinema because it serves as a bridge. It’s a melting pot between the Arab and the African countries. There is this mixed culture; this fusion that is evident in the faces, in the stories, in the folk tales, and in the landscape. It is the Arab African blend. That’s how I see cinema in Sudan. I like to use here a term that we use in visual storytelling; the dissolve. The dissolve usually meaningfully connects two or more images together. And that’s what Sudan does to the Arab and the African worlds. It profoundly connects them together. However, the cinema that is supposed to visually convey this mixture is absent. And there is no free non-politicized tv that would aesthetically or thematically portray that world. This is Cinema’s role. And that’s what we tried to do in ‘You Will Die at Twenty’.

You see all of that poetry; all of those poignant visual choices. Cinematically speaking, what was your point of inspiration?

Amjad: I had multiple points of inspiration that I held dearly in my heart while writing. I have been waiting for the filming to happen for me to unleash that visual interpretation. For instance, there is Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso influence when you see Muzamil’s interaction with film. The boat scene was inspired by the work of two directors; Emir Kusturica’s Time of the Gypsies and Theo Angelopoulos’s The Weeping Meadow. Of course, there is Tarkovsky. There is also a lot of influence coming from the Arab cinema; like Youssef Chaine’s The Iron Gate, Gadalla Gubara’s Khartoum, and Chadi Abdel Salam’s The Mummy.

Add to that drive that you’d take when going to the Valley of Kings in Luxor. The tomb that the pharaoh would supervise prior to his death is on and of itself very telling of Muzamil’s story. Of course with Muzamil, you have Sakina; who is the architect that is drafting all those scribbles in an attempt to count Muzamil’s days.

Sakina counting the days of Muzamil in ‘You Will Die at Twenty’.

How far did you change the story you had initially adapted?

Amjad: I did change a lot. I had chosen to do an adaptation of a 40-page story from Hammour Ziada’s collection, ‘Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain’. It was more of a concept. I had to make a long story out of it. When I started working on the feature-length screenplay, Ziada was mentally prepared that, for it to work, I will have to add a lot. For example, in the original version, Sulaiman was a weird Haj in a mosque. This motivated me to make my own version of Sulaiman. Naima was a character that did not initially exist in the original version. I added it along with others that I felt can build and help Muzamil’s character evolve.

We see two dedications towards the end of the film.

Amjad: That’s true. The first is to my beautiful friend, the Palestinian film critic Bashar Ibrahim. He and I would share the same office in the TV station where we co-worked. He was a person who really believed in me. He wrote about me a lot. He consistently wrote that he is waiting for Amjad Abu Alala’s first feature film. He did that 5 years ago, even before he read the film. By the time I finished the first draft of ‘You Will Die at Twenty’, he was sick in the hospital with throat cancer. In an attempt to entertain him, I brought him that first draft to read. But he had lost his ability to speak. So he playfully wrote to me saying; “I’m dying here at the hospital and you’re entertaining me with a story that says; You Will Die at Twenty!”

The second dedication honors all the Sudanese that fell victims during the revolution. The people who were martyred, raped, imprisoned, or injured. The revolution happened during our production. A close friend of mine was killed. It was extremely befitting to dedicate the film to him and to all of those who were impacted. The revolution shaped Sudan and became an integral element of ‘You Will Die at Twenty’s’ backstory.

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Written by Areeb Zuaiter (Arab America Contributing Writer) on January 27, 2021

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