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Interview: Amjad Abu Alala Discusses ‘You Will Die at Twenty’ and Sudanese Culture

For a film about a shortened life span, it has ironically been a long journey for Amjad Abu Alala and his debut feature You Will Die at Twenty. In Awards Radar’s recent interview with the Sudanese filmmaker, he explained how his film charted its historic path as the first Sudanese film in decades and the first ever Oscar submission. Starring Mustafa Shehata as a boy whose coming of age is overshadowed by the film’s titular premonition, this unique drama is a fascinating exploration of an under seen culture. Read below for our enlightening discussion with Amjad Abu Alala about the film’s inspirations and social context.

Shane Slater: How did you get the idea to tell this story?

Amjad Abu Alala: The film is an adaptation of a short story. It’s called Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain by Sudanese novelist Hammour Ziada. I found that story and the idea caught me, because I remembered how similar it could be to reality. When I saw my extended family talking about holy men and how they believe in them. Like, when a woman is divorced, they need to go the Sheikh. So I just thought this was the feature film I should do. And through Muzamil’s life I can talk about how one person could be stuck with many authorities. The religious authority and political authority. The mother was the political authority in fact.

SS: How did you approach the thought process and behaviors of Muzamil and his mother Sakina. I found it interesting how they immediately became pessimistic and cautious, as opposed to embracing life to the fullest.

AAA: I think I got inspired by people around me. I have aunts who act like Sakina sometimes, so I made Sakina act like them. For Muzamil, I put parts of myself in him, but definitely not the part of a son from this kind of family. My family are communists and are so open. They aren’t that family at all. For Muzamil, the main issue in the script, not even in the short story, is fearing the water and drowning. This is my fear. I never swim. I also adapted the feelings of cinema. That moment where Muzamil visits Sulaiman to watch films, that moment happened to me when my uncle came back from Saudi Arabia with a cinema projector and he started screening films for us. Without sound, because he couldn’t play the sound. And I adapted that also.

So I think for a filmmaker dealing with character, you need to first look at the characters themselves. What they need, how they talk. And also by watching. Just try to see people around you that you can mix into them. For example, when I was young my aunt died. Then my aunts and my mom decided to wear black for three years. Normally, it’s just like 40 days. But for her, it was three years. I used to see people grieving and wearing black around me, so I decided to make Sakina wear black for 20 years. That wasn’t in the short story.

SS: Is Sudanese society still very superstitious?

AAA: Yes. And especially when you go to the villages. Surprisingly, even in the cities too but they hide it. They don’t announce that they do that because they know it’s not acceptable worldwide. But they can’t resist. It’s still there in different ways. It’s not necessarily a holy man saying your son will die at 20.

SS: We think of Islamic cultures and societies as very patriarchal but the women play such an important role in this story. Especially the mother Sakina and the girlfriend Naiema. How did you approach the female characters?

AAA: That’s a very interesting question because this is why Sudanese cinema is so important. Why we miss doing cinema in that part of Africa. That part of Africa is the line between Arab or Islamic culture and African culture. So even when we talk about fundamental beliefs, it’s still Africa. Women have roles to do. In Sudan, the men don’t mind women being stronger than them, as Muzamil’s father says before he left. And in the villages, I’ve noticed how strong the women are, even the girls like Naiema. This is something I saw from my dad’s village, which is very close to the one in the film. Like a 10 minute walk.

So I didn’t want to present a normal subconscious about religion because in Sudan it’s not like Saudi Arabia, it’s not Iran. It’s Africa. So it has a different way. Also, let’s talk about Islam itself. It’s not only one way. There’s Sufism, there’s Salafi. Salafi is very fundamental like how Saudi Arabia was before. Or there’s Shia, like in Iran.

Sufism is not really about making women to be less than men at all. Sufism is very spiritual and I like it. With this film I was celebrating the art and music of Sufism. It’s not like Salafism, where all the art and music is forbidden. Sudanese people believe in Sufism and it became too powerful. That’s what the film is talking about.

SS: You mentioned how you became introduced to cinema. Was it love at first sight, in terms of wanting to become a filmmaker?

AAA: I think yes, from one side. From another side, like Muzamil, I was looking for windows to open and see the world outside. I found cinema to be a good way to see everything, including books, music, acting, documentaries. I wanted to go for the very natural idea of the cinema. It’s a window to see another world.

SS: In the film, it implies that cinema was something to be hidden. Has the cinema culture changed in Sudan?

AAA: Well, they don’t think cinema is forbidden. But the film never screened once in Sudan until now. Why is that? It’s because I have a kissing scene. It’s the first kissing scene in a Sudanese film ever. And I have a sex scene for the first time ever. And there’s a line like “fuck them all” that stopped the film in Sudan. It’s not from the government. They gave me approval. But the cinema owners felt like they couldn’t show it because there are videos now on YouTube threatening me and the crew, and threatening the cinemas if they screen the film. These are from the fundamental part of Sudan, not the Sufism. So if you type “you will die at twenty” and the word for “holy man” in Arabic, you’ll see a lot of videos calling for people to avoid this film.

The past Islamic government closed the cinema for 30 years. So people used to films through censored TV. And they used to see Egyptian and American films. So even if it’s not censored, it’s them, not us. We are “good,” we’re not kissing. Because kissing is not “good.”

But I did it because the story needed it and the society needs to wake up and understand that cinema reflects whatever we do. If you eat, cinema will show you eating. If you have sex, cinema will show you having sex. It’s a very “ABC” idea. [Laughs]. But when you make the first film in Sudan for twenty years, you need to deal with ABC things.

SS: So how do you go from those challenges to becoming the first Oscar submission for Sudan?

AAA: Yeah, that was very nice because the film had been through a journey since we collected the funds. Any fund we submitted for, we got it somehow. From France, from Germany. Something about the story was catchy. And also the experience of doing a film in Sudan for the first time after twenty years. Then the film got selected for Venice and won the Lion of the Future. That was awesome, and after that it screened in Toronto, Rotterdam, Busan and many festivals. We got 20 awards. I like that number of 20 because of 2020 and You Will Die at 20. Now we’re at 2021, so we passed and didn’t die. [Laughs].

Actually, the revolution happened during the making of the film. That was awesome and hard at the same time. But I understood how beautiful it was when we decided to nominate the film for the Oscars and asked the government to start talking to the Academy because there was no committee. So because this new government believes in art and change through art for Sudan’s reputation, they started the committee and nominated the film. And I was so happy to have the first film from Sudan sent for the Oscars, even if we didn’t make it for the shortlist for many reasons. We didn’t have the right campaign to spend the money required to get 10,000 voters to notice the film and watch it on the platform.

Film Movement were great in launching the film in America on 22 January and that helped a lot. But I discovered how the Oscars race needs another fund. Just like how you struggle to make the film, you need to struggle to campaign the film later on. You need another fund.

SS: Throughout all of this, COVID-19 happened. How did that affect you and how are you looking toward the future?

AAA: I got some time at least from September 2019 to March 2020. During this time, the film was being screened around the world. In France, Switzerland, Tunisia, Egypt. So it had a chance until COVID-19 turned it virtual. The film has been through the two faces of cinema. It was a nice journey.

COVID-19 is really dangerous for the health of cinema. I feel like the virus is going through cinema’s throat also, like it goes through people. We need to find ways around this because cinema cannot die because of a virus.

You Will Die at Twenty is now playing in virtual cinemas.

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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Written by Shane Slater

Shane Slater is a passionate cinephile whose love for cinema led him to creating his blog Film Actually in 2009. Since then, he has written for AwardsCircuit.com, ThatShelf.com and The Spool. Based in Kingston, Jamaica, he relishes the film festival experience, having covered TIFF, NYFF and Sundance among others. He is a proud member of the African-American Film Critics Association.

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