The story of Sudan’s first ever Academy Award entry

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The eighth feature film produced in Sudan became its first contender for the Oscars – and here’s the story.

You will die at 20 is the first ever film from Sudan to be considered for an Oscar. It’s actually only the eighth feature film Sudan’s ever produced. In 1989, authoritarian ruler Omar Al Bashir shut down cinemas and almost completely destroyed the industry. But director Abu Alala didn’t let that hold him back. He wanted to make a film about Sudan that spoke to the Sudanese people and could be appreciated by the rest of the world.

Alala decided to adapt Sudanese author Hammour Ziada’s 2014 short story Sleeping At The Foot Of The Mountain. Its central theme of blind obedience to religious authority really resonated with him. It was something he’d seen in much of Sudan and even in his extended family.


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You will die at 20 is his debut feature after a few years making short films and running film programmes at several festivals. It’s the coming-of-age story of a young boy called Muzamil and the curse he’s had to live with since he was a baby. When a guest unexpectedly dies at a blessing for his birth, a holy sheik prophesies that Muzamil will die on his 20th birthday. His mother is utterly distraught. She starts wearing black all the time to mourn her son, even though he’s still alive. Her husband offers little support and leaves to work abroad. Muzamil ends up spending his whole life waiting for death. He can’t escape it: the whole village judges and pities him. He won’t even let himself fall in love with a beautiful girl who’s always had feelings for him.

It’s only when he meets the cynical Suleiman that he starts questioning his fate. Suleiman returns to the village after years abroad and introduces him to art, ideas and the power of cinema. Through film, Muzamil  is able to see that there is a very different world outside the village.  Suleiman is the first person to call the sheik’s prophecy madness. He urges him to live his life without fear. Thanks to his new father figure, Muzamil starts rebelling and finally experiences the pleasures of life.

Alala was inspired by the idea of freedom. He felt that every Sudanese citizen was just like Muzamil: kept in a box, an inescapable system. The whole point of the story is to show that rebellion is possible.

Coincidently, the Sudanese revolution started on the day they started shooting. Alala told Awards Watch that the film became a way to highlight the new direction the country needed to take.

“Ultimately, this is a film that addresses a country grappling with its oppressive past and coming to terms with how moving forward can only take place once we find a genuine purpose that speaks to who we really want to be, and what we’re truly capable of.”

But there were many challenges. Even before the film was made he was worried the authoritarian government would prohibit the production. So he sent the government a fake script with many omissions.

Alala had to build up a whole film industry from scratch. The last time a film was made in Sudan was back in 1989. Alala imported over four tonnes of equipment into the country. He hired foreign crew to teach Sudanese technicians whose skill sets were in commercials and corporate films. Casting wasn’t as difficult as he expected, as hundreds turned up to audition. But he had to set up a year long workshop to train new actors and retrain professionals who had only worked in theatre and TV.

Filming just as the revolution started gave Alala more inspiration but it also led to greater difficulties. There were many delays getting the equipment they needed. This was particularly challenging since they only had a 24 day shoot. For the first ten days, they had to shoot all the exterior scenes with just the natural daylight. That wasn’t the end of their problems. As the fighting continued, there were more sanctions and their funding kept getting held up. The authorities were becoming increasingly paranoid. They even sent spies to the set. Fortunately, it was pretty obvious who they were. Alala tried to get them interested in filming, and  some became extras, and even recruited other spies to take on bit part roles.

Alala finished editing in April just as the most intense part of the revolution started. He was going to leave for Paris but decided to stay in the country to be involved. For two months, cast and crew joined the protestors.

The film is a sign of a new Sudan. It was first shown at the Venice Film Festival and won the Lion of the Future award.  It was subsequently screened in festivals across the world and went on to win many awards. Alala asked the new government to start talking to the academy. They wanted to support the arts, believing that film can be a tool for change. So they set up a committee and made You will Die at 20 Sudan’s first official Oscar entry.

Even though it didn’t get nominated, just being entered is a huge sign of change. Alala wants to help the Sudanese film industry grow. He’ now s producing several films by Sudanese directors to build up the momentum he’s created. Alala believes that You will die at 20 will only be the first of many Sudanese films to compete for an Oscar…

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