An animal carcass that a vulture has attacked lies half-rotted in the sand. The ominous sign, however, escapes the gaze of the festively dressed company passing in the background of the picture. The procession is on its way to the religious leader of the village, the occasion is cheerful: a newborn child is to be blessed.
Sakina, the mother, presents the holy man with the little muzamil, while a dervish counts the years of life in a ritual dance. When he falls to the ground unconscious at the number 20, the boy’s fate seems sealed.
The prophecy that Amjad Abu Alala’s film takes as its title hangs like lead over the family. The father does not feel up to the burden and goes to Addis-Abeda to work, Sakina stays behind with the child. Fear and hopelessness characterize maternal upbringing. While the other children play soccer, the “son of death”, as Muzamil is mockingly called, hides behind the stony walls of the house.
Once, in anticipation of his funeral, he is rubbed with ashes by his peers and placed in a box. When the imam advises him to learn to read, Sakina brushes him off: “The knowledge doesn’t help with his short life anyway.” But then she attaches the slight hope to the faith that the prophets will change their minds and sends Muzamil to the mosque to study the Koran .
The filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala, who grew up and was educated in the United Arab Emirates as the son of Sudanese parents, is one of the co-founders of the 2014 Sudan Independent Film Festival in Khartoum, one of the few initiatives to revitalize the defunct film culture.
Since the military coup by the Islamic fundamentalist dictator Umar al-Bashir in 1989, cinema in Sudan has practically not existed either as a screening or production site. “At 20 You Will Die”, shot in 2019 under difficult conditions during the revolution against al-Bashir in a region heavily influenced by Sufism, is only the eighth feature film ever produced in Sudan – after twenty years.
Abu Alala’s debut film, based on a short story by Sudanese writer Hammour Ziada, takes a reserved approach to the tensions between tradition and modernity that are being carried out on the streets. The story is set in a rather hermetic, almost insular community. Located in Al-Jazirah Province, the village is surrounded by desert.
When Muzamil (Mustafa Shehata) is 19 years old, he is the only one in the village who knows both versions of the Koran. The hard-working young man does not find peace in his faith. Instead, the acquaintance with Sulaiman opens up an unknown world for him. The outsider, despised locally as a drunkard, has traveled widely, lived in Kario, Paris, Berlin and South Africa and filmed everyday life on the streets. In his dwelling, which is stuffed with photographs, records, radios and film projectors, Muzamil also gets to know the cinema.
He also sees footage of Khartoum on which people are dancing. Struggling with time left, Muzamil is torn between the mosque and the secular seductions Sulaiman preaches.
“You’ll Die When You’re 20” is a film of vivid contrasts. The glistening bright sunlight, which makes the colorful robes shine, contrasts with the dark interior of Muzamil’s parents’ house, which is reminiscent of a burial chamber or a dungeon. For each survived day in the son’s life, the mother draws a line on the walls, resulting in an increasingly crazed picture.
In addition to dreamlike moments, the cinema runs through the film as an emancipative moment. On one occasion, daylight falls through a tiny window like the beam of light from a film projector, causing dust grains to dance. Fictions and rituals, on the other hand, are cultural techniques that cinema also adopts. Abu Alalas makes the references between everyday mythology and cinema productive without overloading them.