Interview: Amjad Abu Alala on the Promise of “You Will Die at Twenty”

There are some omens that Amjad Abu Alala can get behind. After two years simply building up the infrastructure to simply shoot in Sudan where his debut feature “You Will Die at Twenty” would be just the seventh feature film produced in the country, bringing in crew members from around the world to extend their knowledge to locals in order to build a base for future productions, the filmmaker was faced with a series of momentous events for the country that would’ve derailed anyone else but Abu Alala could look at as inspiration to keep going.

“it just so happened the year that we want to shoot, the economy started going down and down,” recalls Abu Alala. “And the day we started shooting was the day when the revolution started.”

Abu Alala is referring to the groundswell that removed the dictator Omar al-Bashir from power in April of 2019, but the writer/director started one himself with his riveting first feature, which centers around a premonition that perhaps should be taken less seriously when a mother (Islam Mubarak) seeks the blessing of Al Khalifa for her newborn son Muzamil and receives instead the deeply troubling forecast that he won’t make it past his second decade on this earth. Whether or not the holy sheik is to be believed, his prediction threatens to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as Muzamil’s father can’t bear to be around, claiming to benefit the family by moving out to work from afar, and the boy’s mother Sakina counts down the days until his expected death, becoming ultra-protective of him to the point that he’s inhibited from doing much with the time that he has.

Wondering whether the time spent in her belly counted towards his time on earth, Muzamil (played in his early years by Moatasem Rashed and later in his teens by Mustafa Shehata) starts to see his horizons broadened by the few people who he encounters through his mother’s orbit, Naima (Bunna Khalid), the daughter of one of her friends, and Sulaiman (Mahmoud Elsaraj), who returns to their village after spending time seeing the world and coming back with a love of films. “You Die at Twenty” inspires in the same way in spite of its inevitably heartrending story, told with elegance and tenderness as Abu Alala who builds on small specific details of Sudanese culture to create a rapturous experience that flows as if it’s a dream. With the film arriving on American shores this week in virtual cinemas as it competes for a place on the Oscar shortlist for Best International Feature as Sudan’s first-ever official selection, Abu Alala spoke about basing the film on his memories of Sudan and the inspiration of Hammour Ziada’s short story “Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain,” honoring the directing greats that had come before and creating the foundation for more to come from the Middle East.

How did this come about?

I wanted to make a film in Sudan. I’d been born and raised in Dubai, but I spent six years of my beautiful childhood and teenagehood in Sudan from 1991 to 1996. Those six years just stuck as the memories in my head. I was living in a city called Madani and those villages were where I shot the film at the end — my dad’s village was one of them – so it was a memory for me. For example, the dead cow at the beginning was part of my childhood memory and we used to go [to that area] for funerals and weddings, but [there were always] dead cows, so it starts from here that I wrote the story. I always wanted to do my first feature in Sudan, even if I had a chance to do it in Dubai or Cairo, because I know there’s no cinema there. And I knew it would be difficult, but it’s very fresh with untold stories, with unseen faces, and unseen locations.

The story [“Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain”] itself just [spoke] to me. It had a political element, [which] may not be very obvious, but for someone in Sudan in this system that’s very Islamic and very dictatorial, I just felt every Sudanese citizen is just like Muzamil. Someone took him and put him in a box, so I want them to tell Muzamil, “Go out of that box,” and at the same time I’m telling that to my nation.

How did you find this wonderful cast?

Having no cinema, I had to announce casting in social media, and wait for people to come. Actually, hundreds of people came and that was so promising in a country [where] they don’t watch cinema everyday. And I chose Mustafa Shehata to play Muzamil, and Bonna Khalid [to play] Naiema, and then I had to rely on professional actors [from] theater and TV drama, like Mahmoud Elsarraj, who played Sulaiman, and Islam Mubarak [who] played [Muzamil’s] mother because really I wanted professionals in those roles. I worked for one year teaching acting to the new ones, and with the professionals, it’s wasn’t teaching acting, but changing the methods of acting [because] it’s not the method that what they do in theater or in TV. So here it was more difficult than [working with] the new [actors] because here there’s a lot of dust that you want to take out to [put in] these very cinematic feelings, but I enjoyed it.

When you’re working intensively like that, is there anything that you incorporate into the characters base on what they’re giving you?

A lot. For example, Mustafa Shehata was one of 200 guys in the casting and I felt something during the interview and my camera was on. He was sitting there, and someone was on the floor [ready] to pop up, and I didn’t want to stop the recording, but I asked him, “What’s going on up there?” And he looked up and he said, “This is maybe my mother.” And he only knew the logline of the film, not the specific scenes and he starts [explaining] “Maybe my mother brought the woman to prepare for my funeral.” I was [impressed] like, “What? Okay.” I loved the guy from the first [moment] and actually, I adapted what he said [for the film]. That scene wasn’t there in the script, but I was inspired by him, so I chose him for the role and I built three scenes based on what he said in the casting.

From what I understand, you were actually adjusting scenes where there were four or five shots that you condensed it into one. Was that influenced by the actors?

I developed a script for two years and from draft one to draft 11, the development wasn’t just me. I was going to festivals and meet mentors and talk about this script and I send it to people that I trust — I have 10 names, including my first AD Abdelwahab Shawky and my editor Heba [Othman] and I sent them each draft, so that really helped me to keep seeing the film in my head for two years. Because I was so engaged also in producing, I forgot to do the [shot] list, and then I remembered, I’m a director. I need to do a [shot] list two weeks before the shooting. [laughs] So I did that, but I believe in the moment because I used also to do documentary, so let’s say [the scene] when Muzamil was reading the Quran inside the room and his mother came all the way with the lamp, walking as she crosses him and she rises up to go back out. It’s a very simple scene, but for me it’s very important — it’s supposed to be like a camera following her in and then a cut and he looks at her and she looks at him when he’s reading Quran. But we started [with] the long shot and I fall in love with the long shot. So I [said to the cinematographer], “Okay, that’s it. Why we should [we shoot from the other angles?]“ [And the cinematographer insisted], “No, we have a [shot] list that you gave to me. I was like, “I took my decision right now. The scene will be like that.” Then he’s like, “Let’s cover your ass.” I was like, “No I don’t want to cover my ass. This is how I cover my ass. This is what I want right now.” [laughs]

I loved the decision. In general, I like to prepare everything and I did draw the scenes, but it’s not a bible when I go to the set. If my feelings changed, I wrote it a month ago, but now I’m here, so it’s what I’m feeling this with the location, with this actor.

You’ve said before that the striking opening shot of the dead cow was always in the script, but you actually stumbled across one to film – I wondered whether being in Sudan opened up things like that throughout that might’ve been in your mind, but you’d unexpectedly find ways to realize them.

That was funny because it was between me and my production team and my art director, and they were like, “We would build you the cow, we’ll design it.” All of them are from Khartoum, and I was like, “What?” Khartoum is the capital, they don’t know the villages, and it’s from my memory, that’s why I wrote it into the script. They don’t understand that. I wrote it because I can’t forget the dead cows on the streets. They were dead for two weeks or a month and the smell is everywhere. I was like, “Guys, no, you don’t need to do that. Just a day before [shooting], you go out, do scouting with the cars and bring me the three, four dead cows. I will choose the one to use.” They didn’t believe me. And they prepared something. And then when we reached there, they just found it.

In general, the production design is pretty extraordinary — I love the room that the mother counts the days until Muzamil’s 20th birthday. How did that come about both as a story idea and a physical space?

I love talking about that because on the short story that I took that fall from, the mother was just writing this on paper, but I’m still fascinating by the pharaoh’s heritage. I’m Sudanese. My mother’s part Egyptian and I’m in Egypt now actually [where I can] go to Luxor and go down to the graves of the kings, and all the way down the corridor, you’ll find that room with all the written magical things. So I wondered if Muzamil was just like the pharaohs when they had to go to their graves years before they died since they are just young, and I designed it [as if] Sakina’s the engineer and Muzamil is the pharaoh. And he had that feature of the Nubian pharaoh, Muzamil. So I just, I decided to do that, to try to make a room like a grave with our heritage of the pharaoh’s graves.

I couldn’t help but think there might be a personal connection as well to Muzamil’s relationship to Sulaiman, who introduces him to film.

Yeah, maybe I was trying to introduce my people in general — my crew and my family, my descendants in Sudan to the cinema that I love, and at the same time, I let Sulaiman inside the film to introduce Muzamil to the life. He used the cinema as a window to show [Muzamil] what was behind the borders. For me, “You Will Die at 20” was an initiative to show to Sudanese filmmakers that you can do something and it will be international, to show to Sudanese government [at the time] that we can do something without your help and to show people the cinema that I love. So I wasn’t hesitating at all to put scenes inside the film that directly salute or say thank you to the directors that I love and who inspired me in my life.

For example, the scene when Muzamil is seeing the cinema [at Sulaiman’s house] and when the boats came, it’s for two directors at the same time, Emir Kusturica’s “Time of the Gypsies” and for the Greek director Theo Angelopoulos with “The Weeping Meadow.” There is another tribute for Youssef Chahine by having his film when Muzamil was seeing that beautiful lady Hanuoma. There was another scene for when they watch a Sudanese documentary from one of the most talented Sudanese director who died, Gadalla Gubara, that’s his documentary filmed in ‘70s. And another moment when Tarkovsky suddenly brought the horses inside the house [in “Andrei Rublev”], I did that. [laughs] I was saying hi to Tarkovsky in his grave.

And actually, the most interesting scene to continue is there’s a very important director named Osama Fawzy, who died right before we were shooting that scene [of Sulaiman’s death] by 12 hours. And my first AD wanted to go back after my film to work on his film and then suddenly he died, so I did [an homage] for my assistant director just because he was so sad, and [I had Sulaiman] die on the chair rather than in his bed because one of the most important film of him, they have the main character die in the film on a chair, so I did it that way for Osama Fawzy and actually we shoot the scene before he [departed].

Such a lovely tribute. What does it mean to now represent Sudan as an Oscar contender?

That is great. As a filmmaker with his first feature, I was so happy to go first to screen the film at the Venice Film Festival and we won the Lion of the Future [award] there, and to go to Toronto [eventually receive] 19 awards so far, but to reach the Oscar race or Golden Globes, that’s made me personally very proud. But also as a Sudanese citizen, I’m very proud that we made a revolution. We took the bad guys out and we brought the good people in and they proved to me that they are interested in cinema. For the first time, the Sudan government built a committee to talk to the Oscars and nominate [a film for the best international feature]. I just feel proud that we did the revolution.

And you’ve got the documentary “Captains of Zaatari” premiering next week at Sundance.

I’m a producer on it and I’m so happy because [Ali] El Arabi is a great director. He followed those kids for seven years. I’m also actually preparing another new film as a producer called “Goodbye Julia” that will shoot in Sudan with the director Mohammed Alomd’a. Why I’m doing producing and not directing right now is that I feel to build an industry, you need to continuity and you need to let the same crew be on set again. [Currently] they’ve been doing ads since we shot “You Will Die at 20” two years ago and that’s upset me. The same crew who worked with me, still has only one experience of doing feature films, but I just want to keep them moving. I know I’m not directing now, but I want to prepare the industry for when I want to come back to direct my next film.

“You Will Die at Twenty” is now available in virtual cinemas. A full list is here.