Amjad Abu Alala creates one of the best, if not the best, Middle Eastern film of the year with a daring, poetic and reflective film about faith, life and death
What’s it like to be alive, but dead from the inside? What does it feel like to live but anticipate death, breath every second but know that death is just around the corner? In one of the first ever coming-of-death films to emerge from the Middle East, and certainly one of the most stunning Arab debut films in the past ten years, Amjad Abu Alala’s YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY is a look at faith, or rather its dilemma, in a region particularly known for its blind devotion to everything religious. Does faith makes us, in any way, more alive and attuned to what’s around us? Or does it pull us back when, for the sake for devotion, we lose our sense of adventure, our willingness to explore life and love and prioritize societal views, parental approval and succumb to peer pressure?
These are some of the very challenging, and equally complex, questions that Abu Alala explores in his first feature. While sharing some thematic similarities to another fantastic Arab debut film (THE UNKNOWN SAINT, which world premiered at Cannes earlier this year), YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY is a tighter, denser and more complex work, filmed in luminous cinematography, a haunting soundtrack and a stunningly poetic approach that makes it truly reflective and fresh, even if a few scenes are slightly overlong.
A mother, Skina (portrayed magnificently in an almost wordless performance by Islam Mubarak) goes to a religious ritual in hopes to receive the blessing from one of the village’s religious figures for her newborn son. When an accident happens on site, the boy is believed to be associated with a curse that will make him only live till the age of 20. Unable to shake off the curse, despite being extremely devout, both mother and son share a life that’s more akin to death as they count the days until Muzamel reaches 20, and thus leaves this world. In anticipating death for twenty years, they turn into walking-dead figures whose house resembles a grave, and whose hearts are only pumping robotically. Deep inside, they are long gone, with no willingness to life, no hope in sight.
What makes the film all the more unique, and certainly challenging for viewers who may not want to opt to real slow burners, the film takes a deliberately passive protagonist and puts him in various situations that further cement his unwillingness to change a fate imposed on him. When the change of heart takes place towards the film’s final, and supremely effective, third, it is all the more clear that Abu Alala isn’t interested in a conventional narrative frame where a character is suddenly enlightened to change paths nor displaying a dramatic, life-changing catharsis. In portraying extreme submissiveness, to religion, fate and superstitions (concepts that still plague the Arab world today), Abu Alala challenges viewers to connect with such a passive character.
For some, especially those who have not experienced the faith-dominated Middle East, this may be indeed frustrating. But reality is far worse, and unlike Muzamel, the Arab world still contains millions of people who have completely succumbed to a life chosen for them, a fate sealed for their lives just because religious elders have said so, or to simply avoid societal dismay, and therefore, isolation and expulsion. For Muzamel, his awakening comes very late but it is all the more believable, as he finally emerges from that invisible prison of superstition and imposed beliefs. The final scene, haunting in beauty, score and cinematography, speaks a million words as to the state of Sudan right now, especially as the country awakens from an Islamic rule that has stripped millions of their most important possession: life. It is not poverty nor lack of means that made millions of Sudanese dead from the inside, Abu Alala argues, but it’s the lack of agency, the lack of questioning the status quo, the inability, or unwillingness thereof, to challenge established notions and highly regarded authoritarian figures of religion and power.
The film’s dream sequences particularly stand out, with some stunning shot composition and camera work, and as the story reaches its unexpected climax, viewers are treated to a film that asks them to ponder, think, contemplate and delve deep into a world rarely seen on camera. The fact that this is Sudan’s 7th feature film in its entire history, and the first in 30 years, is all the more telling.
Verdict: A complex, stunning and sophisticated debut feature from Amjad Abu Alala and a major achievement for Sudanese cinema. A confident debut that already feels like an accomplishment.