'You Will Die at Twenty' ('Satamoto Fel Eshreen'): Film Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Be shy and then die.

Sudanese director Amjad Abu Alala's first feature premiered in Venice before it moves on to the Toronto International Film Festival.

Muzamil, the protagonist of You Will Die at Twenty (Satamoto Fel Eshreen), is given the titular death sentence during a ceremony celebrating his birth in the Sudan, which obviously haunts him — and his mother — for the following two decades. Dubai-born and -raised Sudanese filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala’s feature debut has a fascinating pitch, but it also immediately paints his characters into a corner, as Muzamil, aware of his fate, doesn’t seem to be doing much beyond waiting for time to pass and for the Grim Reaper to finally make his prophesied appearance. This means that the character is so passive it's hard to feel much for him as he sits around and wastes most of what little time he has. 

Still, movies from the country where the two Niles meet are rare, so it’s no wonder that both Venice — or, rather, the independent Giornate degli autori section — and Toronto picked this up. It should travel to other festival showcases, especially those interested in African or debuting filmmakers.

The devout Sakina (Islam Mubarak) has taken her newborn to a sheik considered a holy man for a blessing. But during the baby’s elaborate naming ceremony, one of the singers, who is counting the number of years he’ll supposedly live, faints after having pronounced the number 20, which is taken as a sign he won't live past that age. Sakina’s husband (Talal Afifi) can’t deal with the idea that his son will die before he’s fully reached adulthood as he’s already wracked with guilt over the drowning of his brother that he couldn’t prevent. So Dad, with the excuse that he’ll go and make money in Addis Ababa, packs up and leaves their village in Gezira State (south of Khartoum, in central Sudan).

This leaves little Muzamil, played as a kid by Moatasem Rashid, alone with his mother, who doesn't even want to enroll him in the local madrasa. What's the point of studying for a job you’ll never need to get? Thankfully, the village imam insists, so Muzamil starts studying the Quran. But his supposed fate is known by the entire village, having earned him the nickname “son of death,” which makes him vulnerable to bullying by his peers in class. In a cruel (from Muzamil’s point of view) and convenient (from a screenplay standpoint) act, his fellow students cover him in ashes and lock the boy in a chest, which clearly foreshadows his end in a coffin a few years down the line. (Even Muzamil’s name, which means “wrapped in garments” in Arabic, seems to foreshadow a burial.)

Muzamil’s revenge for being locked up is to become the best hafiz of the school, able to cite the entire Quran in not one but two different styles. But the screenplay, by Yousef Ibrahim (Emirati feature Haneen) and the director, doesn’t properly connect the pensive introvert's thinking to his behavior and actions, so it’s up to the audience to figure out what the reasoning is behind the few things he does do. So Muzamil’s reaction to being bullied doesn’t immediately register as such. It is also unclear whether he’s hit upon that idea to become a star Quran student simply because it is the only available way for him to beat his tiny tormentors at something they also have to do or because the boy thinks it might be appropriate for someone who will die young to try and be closer to God. Unfortunately, the impossibility of getting a clear handle on Muzamil’s thinking makes him seem even more passive than he already is. 

In his late teens, Muzamil (now played by Asjad Mohamed) becomes the object of affection of a sweet local girl (Bunna Khalid). But her interest doesn’t spark any desire beyond straightforward companionship. His idea of a grand romance appears to be entirely platonic besides perhaps holding her hand (he would love Bollywood movies if there were a way for him to see them). Indeed, the green teen seems more interested in spending time with a bon vivant called “Uncle Sulaiman” (Mahmoud Elsaraj), a supposed friend of his father’s who appears to be incongruously interested in movies. He also drinks alcohol, which is clearly "haram" as Muzamil complains, though, interestingly, he also seems to be the only person in the movie who is fully alive and who tries to always seize the day. 

Perhaps to reflect that spirit, Sulaiman’s dilapidated, colonial-era home feels like a production designer’s dream of trinkets, cinema paraphernalia and other Sundance-ready quirky stuff. The problem is that there’s such a big gap between his digs and the much more barren and austere other locations that they feel mismatched to such an extent that it becomes hard to accept they belong in the same movie.

This kind of problem also plagues the mise-en-scene of this mostly soberly told folktale of sorts, which somehow contains some shots that are more surreal. They include some very arty play with shallow focus in the family home’s corridor, an Angelopoulos-like vision of boats on the Nile and a few fixed-camera tableaux that suggest that a more lyrical, almost Parajanov-like version of this story would have been a possibility. But these moments, instead of heightening or contrasting what is already there, feel like incongruous glimpses of another dimension more than an organic part of this particular story. They are the experiments of a young director who doesn't yet fully know what he wants, doesn't know how to edit when different ideas co-exist and doesn't know how to maintain an overall tone.

The main theme of You Will Die at Twenty does finally come into focus in the home stretch, after Muzamil has explained that Sulaiman is “like a father” to him, something he says in front of his biological father, who has finally returned. It’s one of the rare instances he dares to say out loud how he feels, and it immediately becomes clear that the relationship between Sulaiman and Muzamil goes to the very heart of the story. But it has taken Alala almost three quarters of his film to get his protagonist to that moment.

(Note: The version screened for review was picture locked but not entirely finished.)

Production companies: Andolfi, Transit Films, Duofilm, Die Gesellschaft DGS, Station Films, Film Clinic 
Cast: Mustafa Shehata, Islam Mubarak, Mahmoud Elsaraj, Bunna Khalid, Talal Afifi, Amal Mustafa, Moatasem Rashid, Asjad Mohamed
Director: Amjad Abu Alala
Screenwriters: Yousef Ibrahim, Amjad Abu Alala
Producers: Arnaud Dommerc, Hossam Elouan, Ingrid Lill Hogtun, Michael Henrichs
Cinematography: Sebastien Goepfert
Editing: Heba Othman
Music: Amine Bouhafa
Venue: Venice International Film Festival (Giornate degli autori)

Sales: Pyramide International

In Sudanese Arabic
105 minutes