DOHA: It’s been a rare thing, glimpsing Sudan’s homegrown cinema. The reasons aren’t exotic - the political and economic extremis that’s marked country’s recent history. A tentative break in the drought came in 2018 with the Venice debut of Hajooj Kuka’s quirky, AK-47 inflected romantic comedy “aKasha.” This year marked the arrival of two more feted features.
Suhaib Gasmelbari’s feature-length doc “Talking About Trees” follows the story of the four repatriated cinema veterans behind the Sudanese Film Group, and their mock-heroic efforts to stage a film projection in an abandoned outdoor cinema in Omdurman.
Amjad Abu Alala’s “You Will Die at 20” is the writer-director’s adaptation of Hammour Ziada’s novella “Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain.” Described as a “coming-of-death” tale, it tells the story of Muzamil (Mustafa Shehata), whose young adult life is perpetually on hold, thanks to a Sufi sheikh’s forecast that the boy wouldn’t live beyond his second decade.
Debuting during Venice Days (the Lido’s answer to Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight), “You Will Die” emerged with the Luigi De Laurentiis Award for debut films. Since then it has collected a basket of awards from festivals in Mumbai, Hamburg, El Gouna, Carthage and, most recently, the Audience Award at DFI’s Ajyal youth film festival.
It was there that the Sudan-born, Dubai-raised Abu Alala sat with a few journalists to discuss his work and where it comes from.
Though Muzamil’s parents are among those who believe in prophecies, not all do.
Notable exceptions include two figures who in their own way try to prize Muzamil away from his resignation to the prophecy.
Naiema (Bonna Khalid), the self-possessed young woman who grew up alongside Muzamil and, despite his disbelief in his own future, has made plans to settle down with him. Another is an araq-swilling secularist named Sulaiman (Mahmoud Alsarraj). This old-school intellectual and filmmaker had documented popular demonstrations against the Khartoum regime, only later retiring to exhausted cynicism and alcoholism with his live-in girlfriend.
Sulaiman (who was not in Ziada’s source text) gives “You Will Die” some resonance with Gasmelbari’s “Talking About Trees.” The character might be modeled on writer, theater and film director Ibrahim Shaddad, or any of the cinema pioneers at the center of Gasmelbari’s doc.
Before he made his film, Abu Alala told The Daily Star, he wouldn’t have thought of these filmmakers as heroic figures.
“I could easily borrow Brahim Shaddad to be Sulaiman in my film,” he laughed.
“Sometimes I think we blamed [his generation] for not fighting enough, but we weren’t in their situation. We didn’t see the ’90s, when Bashir was so crazy and killing people. ... So we blame them a little for stopping the fight.
“After watching Suhaib’s film, I felt bad for thinking this way for so many years. I wasn’t in a real relationship with them, but since then we spent nice days together, eating from the same plate. Now we hug. When I’m back in Sudan, me and Suhaib will push them to finish this film they started in 1989, which was stopped.”
Sulaiman gets some of the best lines in “You Will Die” and, though his character is not comic, some of the funniest. At one point he finds Muzamil in the village mosque, where he’s dedicating his final years to memorizing the Quran and laboring as the sheikh’s personal servant.
He picks up a sheet of blank paper, saying, “What color is this?”
“White,” Muzamil replies.
He sprays ink over the page. “And now?” he asks, then answers, “It’s still white. The black just makes the white all the more bright. You pray for forgiveness but you’ve never sinned. Try sinning a little, so you can better understand virtue.”
Scenes like this, and the film’s skepticism of prophecy, send an ambivalent message about piety.
“Life is full of everything,” Abu Alala said. “Make mistakes and learn and fall down and stand up again. For me, it’s not about sin. It’s about life experience in general, to make mistakes and make it up later or to love the experience if it’s not a mistake.”
One of this film’s more striking features is that, while rooted in a distinctly Sudanese situation - not least the country’s devotion to Sufi Islam and the authority that Sufi sheikhs have among the people - its central premise resonates metaphorically with the predicament of young people throughout the MENA region.
When The Daily Star asked Abu Alala what he means to say about the situation of young Sudanese people today, he stressed the veracity of the film’s premise.
“The film is a mix of [Ziada’s] short story and the cinema and script and the reality,” he began. “In Sudan and Egypt there’s something called ‘ibn al-mawt,’ son of death. ... Someone who’s genuine and nice and decent, and loving people - you know his life is short. A man and a woman can go to the sheikh and he might say, ‘You won’t remain together for more than 20, 30 years. Someone will die.’ That happens.”
When pressed on his film’s relevance to the predicament of Sudanese youth generally, and swaths of young people outside Sudan who feel compelled to migrate, his response remains close to home.
“I think Sudan’s [Dec. 19, 2018-September 2019] revolution wasn’t just the December Revolution,” he began. “It started ... when they killed 300 of us on the streets. I was very involved at that time.
“Afterwards when I was looking for a story to shoot, I didn’t want to do a 100-percent-political film because I wanted to shoot in Sudan.
“They wouldn’t allow it. In terms of co-production, no co-producer would allow a film that runs the risk of being shut down.
“So I looked for a story that talks about freedom,” he continued. “Sometimes I can see Muzamil as one of these people ... on the street. Coincidentally, it so happened that we started to shoot at 5 a.m., Dec. 17. That was the day the Sudanese people went out onto the streets at 5 p.m.”
The “You Will Die” shoot was not stopped by events in Sudan but it did affect how it looked in the end.
“We stared shooting just as people were beginning to protest,” Abu Alala recalled. “It started with four months of street demos. We finished in January and I went back to Egypt to edit. Four of my crew were arrested. ... When people started calling for the sit-in on April 6, I felt, ‘I don’t want to edit anymore.’
“My producer was so angry,” he laughed. “So I stopped and went back to Sudan from April 6. I brought my dog and we slept in the streets for two months. Then I travelled to re-edit and just a few days later they tried to make a massacre. They killed a lot of people. I was so angry. I had only one week to finish editing and I changed a lot of things.
“In the first draft, Muzamil and Sulaiman meet with Charles Aznavour’s ‘La Boheme’ playing in the background. Now it’s the revolution song I was hearing every day on the set. I decided to give the film to the people I’d been sleeping with on the street, especially the 300 who died.
“It’s not a film about the revolution,” he said. “It’s a film for the revolution.”