You Will Die At Twenty

***1/2

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

You Will Die At 20
"It's as though the director is so in love with the striking visual aesthetic that he forgets the need to narratively connect the dots."

Amjad Abu Alala's feature debut is a visually arresting, if sometimes narratively simplistic consideration of the impact of culture and superstition on the life of a young man in rural Sudan. Given the dedication at the film's end to "the victims of the Sudanese revolution", it might also be considered, in retrospect, to be an anthem to youth doomed by circumstance.

The heat of the sun and the piercing colour of the sky - mirrored by blue curtains and other similarly coloured elements - help to establish a strong sense of place in the small village where Muzamil (played as a youngster by Moatasem Rashid before Mustafa Shehata takes over teenage duties) is born. He is taken by his mother Sakina (Islam Mubarak) as a newborn to be blessed by the local sheikh, only for one of the dervishes dancing at the ceremony to collapse in a fit as he counts to 20. Although not spelt out directly by the sheikh, the superstition of those present leads them all to conclude that Muzamil is doomed to die when he notches up his second decade.

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Abu Alala economically shows how this becomes physically and emotionally restrictive for Muzamil - his father (Talal Afifi), unable to cope, abandons the family for work abroad, leaving the youngster taunted for being the "son of death" by the local boys he is barely allowed to play with and kept on a short rein by his mother until the local sheikh persuades her to let him take religious instruction. There's the quality of a fable to these early scenes, as his mother scores off his days on a wall, while Muzamil strikes up a sweet and burgeoning friendship with local lass Naima (Bunna Khalid) and becomes an expert at reading the Quran but there's an opacity to all the characters' motivations which becomes increasingly frustrating as the film runs along.

While it's possible to believe that Sakina's blind faith might leave her unquestioning as regards Muzamil's fate, it's less clear what the teenager himself thinks of the situation. A new arrival in town Sulaiman (Mahmoud Elsaraj) - a world-weary sort who drinks sinful bootleg booze and is in a long-term relationship with the local sex worker - may spark a sexual awakening with his films and projector, but while these scenes all have a compelling element individually, Abu Alala never quite manages to marry all the various elements into a satisfying whole.

Cinematographer Sébastien Goepfert's skill extends from pinpoint lighting in darkened spaces to expert framing of ensemble scenes involving the sheikh and his entourage,  but it's as though the director is so in love with the striking visual aesthetic created by him that he forgets the need to narratively connect the dots. Emotional openings are all too often turned into cul-de-sacs - including an odd quasi-sexual encounter with a sheikh as a young man that is never referenced again or the way that Muzamil's relationship with Naima is ultimately dealt with in perfunctory terms. In many ways, this becomes a film about potential, both that of its young protagonist and of the director - in Abu Alala's case it isn't fully realised here but there's a good chance it will be in whatever he tackles next.

Reviewed on: 18 Apr 2020
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You Will Die At Twenty packshot
A boy struggles to cope with a prediction in childhood that he will die at 20.

Director: Amjad Abu Alala

Writer: Amjad Abu Alala, Yousef Ibrahim

Starring: Islam Mubarak, Mustafa Shehata, Moatasem Rashed, Mahmoud Alsarraj, Bonna Khalid, Talal Afifi, Mazin Ahmed, Hassan Ali, Mohamed Khalil, Asjad Mohamed, Amal Mustafa, Islam Mubarak, Mustafa Shehata, Moatasem Rashed, Mahmoud Alsarraj

Year: 2019

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: Sudan, France, Egypt, Germany, Norway, Qatar


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