There are 93 countries and territories that submitted a film for this year’s International Feature category. That’s a new record, beating last year’s record, thanks to three new entrants, including Sudan, which officially throws its proverbial hat into the ring with You Will Die at Twenty, which if nothing else would be the runner-up for the most creative title among the contenders, behind The Man Who Sold His Skin. Such a foreboding title offers instant intrigue, because it could literally be about almost anything. It could be about drugs, or murder. It could be an ironic comedy title. It could be a documentary about the recent revolutions, secession of South Sudan, or the genocide in Darfur. You can go almost anywhere.
As it is, we end up with an ironic tale of lost youth due to prophecy, which I never would have called, but it’s interesting nonetheless. This is a flawed film, but thanks to some strong acting and character development, along with some apparent homages to other great foreign films, it serves as an excellent first effort from the nation. Under the old Academy rules for the category, I could have seen this being one of the four or five films added to the shortlist by the Executive Committee regardless of preliminary votes as a means to demonstrate the developing cinema scene in Sudan, and I would have applauded the move.
In a small village along the Nile River, two new parents, Sakina (Islam Mubarak) and Alnoor (Talal Afifi) take their infant son Muzamil (Moatasem Rashed as a child, Mustafa Shehata as a teenager) to a local sheik to be blessed. During the ceremony, one of the sheik’s attendants, a literal whirling dervish, prays and dances while counting. Upon reaching the number 20, he keels over and dies. The sheik then declares that it is a curse upon Muzamil, that he too will die the moment he reaches the age of 20.
A lot of Western films would play this scene for laughs. I sure as hell thought it was going that direction at first. I mean, who sees a guy clearly die from exhaustion in the desert and then interprets it as a cursed baby? This has to be a dark gag, right? But this film doesn’t do that. In fact, it’s basically never questioned. It is taken as a sign from God that Muzamil is doomed, and the whole village knows it. Sakina begins etching days on the wall of their hovel counting down her son’s mortality, and Alnoor, consumed with fear and shame, abandons them entirely to work as a laborer all over Africa, only returning when Muzamil is 19 to prepare for his funeral. As Muzamil grows, he’s tormented and bullied by the other boys his age and shunned by the community at large, until the local Imam teaches him to read the Quran and sets him to memorizing it.
Maybe it’s culture clash, but I just don’t get this. Granted, I’m not religious, but I know a lot of people who are, across many different faiths, and I can’t imagine any of them taking this prophecy at face value. And even then, how can everyone just go straight to the acceptance phase of this and live with it as written in stone? Couldn’t there be other interpretations of this random dervish’s sudden death? What are the sheik’s credentials to make such a proclamation? Muzamil ends up spending much of his youth memorizing scripture, why not point out a passage that would suggest such a destiny?
As a plot device, it’s a bit weak, but as a thematic framework, it succeeds. Essentially this becomes a coming of age movie, but what does it mean when coming of age would literally mean your death? How does a child grow into himself when he’s been taught his entire life that he was specifically cursed by God? What does one do with their life if they truly believe they have a set expiration date? Who would take the risk of befriending such a pariah?
As it turns out, that last part sort of washes away. As a teenager, Muzamil is less shunned and more seen as the walking dead. Everyone likes him well enough, even the kids who once bullied him. They simply view his impending demise as a matter-of-fact formality, which is strange, but not in an off-putting way. As for what he does and who are his friends, that becomes the real crux of the film.
While working as a delivery boy for his uncle’s shop, Muzamil meets Sulaiman (Mahmoud Alsarraj), a former friend of his father who now lives as a shut-in. He’s considered a “sinner” because he drinks, traveled away from the village (and around the world), entertains himself with decadent things like music and film, and lives with a courtesan out of wedlock. He’s there to serve as a mentor to Muzamil, showing him the outside world he hasn’t bothered to seek out yet, and encouraging him to live his life to the fullest, especially if he truly thinks he’s doomed.
The other is Naima (Bonna Khalid), who appears to be the only girl in the village of Muzamil’s age. Since childhood she’s been Muzamil’s only friend, and as teenagers she makes it very clear that she’s in love with him, and would like to marry him. Muzamil rebuffs her advances, not because he doesn’t share those feelings, but because he feels guilty about the prospect of leaving her a young widow. In spite of that, Naima would rather be his wife for one day than spend a lifetime without him. It’s really sweet, and a good bit of character development, because neither one comes from a necessarily bad place. It’s just that their viewpoints aren’t compatible on the central issue of Muzamil’s lifespan.
Both Sulaiman and Naima though serve the same grander purpose, attempting to force Muzamil to live for himself. Thanks to his grim religious prognosis, he’s basically spent his entire life in a mosque. His sole accomplishment is having memorized the Quran in two major reading styles, becoming the first in his village to do so. That’s it. Nearly 20 years on this planet, presumably all he has to live, and he’s got almost nothing to show for it save one recital of scripture. And yet because of the entire village’s commitment to believing this prophecy, there’s never even the slightest hint that his time has been wasted, except from Sulaiman and Naima.
In the end this leads to a somewhat disappointing resolution, but it did leave me wanting more, as the story called for a better capper and some more character study. But it shouldn’t be entirely discounted, as the acting is pretty solid throughout the film, and there are some artistic and technical elements worth applauding. There are scenes of dream imagery that work really well, and towards the end the film almost drifts into magical realism, which is a risky move, but I appreciate the experimentation. Also, it looked to me like the filmmakers took some inspiration from some truly great international films. Some of the camera work evokes City of God, and Sulaiman teaching Muzamil his love of film harkens back to Cinema Paradiso, which is one of my all-time favorites full stop.
This shows promise and potential. Sudan has never submitted a film before, but they’ve shown through this first foray that they’ve got the chops to put something amazing into the universe. You Will Die at Twenty is oftentimes intriguing and thought-provoking, even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing. But what’s important here is that Sudan have announced their presence on cinema’s world stage, and I for one welcome it.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What would you do if you knew the day you were going to die? Would it be meth? I bet it’d be meth. Let me know!