With the teacher gone from the room, a gang of pre-teen boys erupts into that taunting laughter immediately recognizable as our species’ propensity for cruelty here, there, everywhere. They are overpowering one of their peers—the character of the film’s title — to cover him with chalky ashes as he unsuccessfully fights to get freed from their grip. They then lock him in a trunk. Laughing non-stop, they remind him that he is dead.
Cringeworthy and familiar as this spirit of children’s cruelty may be, its focus on forcing the boy to feel trapped by his death is not new to Muzamil. It started when he was a newborn. On his naming day, just as his mother is presenting him to the Sufi Master for a blessing, one of the Sufi spiritual guides at the ceremony drops dead in an instant. The baby is pronounced cursed to die at 20. All pun intended—the die is cast.
We follow Muzamil and his family for those twenty years. Actually, it’s just Muzamil and his pious mother most of the time, as his father is too overcome with grief to hang around and watch his son grow only to be cut down at 20. With an eye towards Muzamil coming to meet his maker sooner than any other boys, his mother forces Muzamil to commit himself to religious study in overdrive. He complies—memorizing the Koran in two different formats. He remains chaste and obedient. His mother keeps count on the walls, scratching off the days—fearing the inevitable. Muzamil, on the other hand, is kept from learning math, with the pronouncement that there is little point in teaching him that, or anything that is irrelevant to one who dies so young. The only training he needs, everyone knows, is to get on the good side of Allah.
YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY Transports Us To An Exotic World
Although the aforementioned scene of taunting cruel children is cross-culturally knowable—as well as the story arc that is animated by Muzamil’s spirit chafing at the bit for freedom —there is little in the trappings of this film that would feel familiar to the typical American viewer. Most of the domestic scenes take place in sparse and poorly lit rooms with earthen walls. Sometimes Muzamil and his childhood bestie (who grows into a woman sweet on him) go by a sandy waterfront terrain on the Nile that seems almost otherworldly to one more familiar with hilly Cape Cod dunes. Whether it’s the Sufi clique making rounds on their boats, his mother overcome in an exorcism of spiritual cleansing, or the high-pitched yips emerging from the women as they sing in a pre-wedding ritual, the scenes are exotic. For this reviewer, this intimate close-up with new sounds and sights from a distinctly foreign culture exalts.
Perhaps we share this trait with Muzamil, whose curiosity draws him into an unlikely relationship with an elderly man now returned to the village after living a more cosmopolitan life abroad. In his house the light is bright, and nearly every rule that Muzamil has lived by in his short life feels subterranean tremors. How this earthquake resolves on Muzamil’s 20th birthday is long awaited by us, the viewers, much as it has been by Muzamil’s family and village.
In this writer’s view, the best part of YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY actually comes in the film’s credits. It’s here when we learn of the film being dedicated to the heroes of the recent Sudanese Revolution that had freed Sudan from the grip of Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir, the world’s first sitting President to be brought before the Hague. Ah!!—you too may think—the film is a metaphor!
If you love films that transport you to intriguingly foreign terrains and customs, YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY is a top pick for your time. If you are repelled by slow moving character studies with fewer words and even less action, this film is probably not for you.
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RT: 103 minutes
Language: Arabic with English Subtitles
Directed by: Amjad Abu Alala
Written by: Amjad Abu Alala, Yousef Ibrahim
Cast: Mustafa Shehata, Moatasem Rashid, Islam Mubarak, Mahmoud Alsarraj,
Bonna Khalid, Talal Afifi
Produced by: Arnaud Dommerc, Michael Henrichs, Ingrid Lill Høgtun
Co-produced by: Sherif Fathy, Mohamed Hefzy, Marie Fuglestein Lægried,
Linda Bolstad Strønen
Cinematography: Sébastein Goepfert
Genre: World Cinema/Drama
YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY is only the 8th narrative feature filmed in Sudan and Sudan's first official entry for “BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM” in the 93rd ACADEMY AWARDS
For information on upcoming screenings visit the Film Movement webpage for YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY.
Images courtesy of Film Movement.
About the Author: Amy Munice
Amy Munice is Editor-in-Chief and Co-Publisher of Picture This Post. She covers books, dance, film, theater, music, museums and travel. Prior to founding Picture This Post, Amy was a freelance writer and global PR specialist for decades—writing and ghostwriting thousands of articles and promotional communications on a wide range of technical and not-so-technical topics.
Amy hopes the magazine’s click-a-picture-to-read-a-vivid-account format will nourish those ever hunting for under-discovered cultural treasures. She especially loves writing articles about travel finds, showcasing works by cultural warriors of a progressive bent, and shining a light on bold, creative strokes by fledgling artists in all genres.