Almost two years after the overthrow of the autocrat Omar al-Bashir, Sudan is taking steps to rejoin the international community that has long shunned it. That includes its film industry.
For the first time in its history, Sudan has a submission for the Academy Awards. You Will Die at Twenty is produced by a consortium of European and Egyptian companies, but with a Sudanese director and a Sudanese cast in the Best International Feature Film category.
The story is about a young man whose death at the age of 20 is predicted not long after he was born. It casts a shadow over his formative years and corresponds to the burdens placed on a generation of young people in Sudan.
Based on a short story by the Sudanese writer Hammour Ziyada, critics show that the country’s cultural scene is awakening again after decades of oppression.
The film was produced as part of mass demonstrations against al-Bashir, who was overthrown by the military in April 2019 after ruling the country for almost 30 years.
“It was an adventure,” filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala told The Associated Press. “There were protests in the streets that had turned into a revolution when we started shooting.”
The uprising in Sudan broke out in late 2018, and when the number of people on the streets increased, many of whom were young, the military stepped in and overthrew the Islamist president. Since then, the country has embarked on a fragile transition to democracy, ending years of theocratic rule that restricted artists’ freedoms.
The film’s submission was announced in November by the country’s Ministry of Culture, one month before the second anniversary of the start of the uprising.
What follows is a narrative by Ziyada from the early 2000s that chronicles the life of a child in the 1960s in a remote village between the Blue and White Niles. The residents are largely based on old Sufi beliefs and traditions, a mystical burden on Islam.
The film begins when a mother, Sakina, takes her newborn boy as a blessing to a Sufi ceremony at a nearby shrine. While a sheikh is giving his blessing, a man in traditional clothing performs a meditative dance, which suddenly stops after 20 laps and falls to the ground – a bad omen.
The frightened mother appeals to the sheikh to make a statement. But he says, “God’s command is inevitable.” At this point, the crowd understands that this is a prophecy that foretells that the child will die at age 20.
Dazed and frustrated, the father leaves his wife and son named Muzamil to face their fate alone.
Muzamil grows up under the watchful eye of his overprotective mother, who wears black in anticipation of his untimely death. He is haunted by the prophecy – even other children call him “the son of death”.
Nevertheless, Muzamil turns out to be a curious boy full of life. His mother allows him to study the Koran. He is praised for memorizing and reciting verses. Then comes a turning point.
A cameraman, Suliman, is returning to the village after years of work abroad. Muzamil, who is now working as an assistant to the village shop owner, gets to know him by delivering alcohol, a social taboo.
Suliman, who lives with a prostitute, opens Muzamil’s eyes to the outside world. Through their discussions, he begins to doubt the prophecy that has so far ruled his life and torn his family apart.
At the age of 19, Muzamil decides for himself what it means to be alive, even if death is imminent.
The film has received positive reviews from international critics. It premiered at the parallel section of the Venice Film Festival 2019 in Venice. It won the Lion of the Future for Best First Feature – the first Sudanese film to do so. Since then, it has won at least two dozen awards at film festivals around the world.
Abu Alala says his team tackled obstacles in the production of the film, which was raised by the same conservative milieu that it portrays. He blames the environment created by al-Bashir, who came to power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989. Under his reign, limited personal freedoms meant that art was viewed with suspicion by many.
A major challenge is that the residents at the location objected to their presence. The crew were forced to move, but they persisted.
“We felt that under no circumstances should this happen,” said Abu Alala. He said it was fortunate that the film’s production period coincided with the cultural turning point of the uprising. The previous government would not have been an advocate of his work.
The film was also praised from the region.
“It’s a very real and local film where the audience can feel all the details, whenever and whoever they are,” wrote Egyptian film critic Tarik el-Shenawy.
The film is only the eighth to be shot in Sudan. Abu Alala says his choices show that Sudan has countless stories that are not told.
“There was no film industry in Sudan – only individual trials … Sudan’s rulers – communists or Islamists – were not interested in cinema. They were just interested in having artists on their side, ”he said.
Now he hopes that he and other filmmakers will have the freedom to share the stories of Sudan with the world.