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Film: You Will Die at 20

12 November 2021

Stephen Brown sees a new film set in Sudan

Muzamil (Mustafa Shehata) and his father, Alnoor (Talal Afifi) in You Will Die at 20

Muzamil (Mustafa Shehata) and his father, Alnoor (Talal Afifi) in You Will Die at 20

THERE is undeniable metaphysical heft to You Will Die at 20 (Cert. 12A). This Sudanese film records the life of Muzamil (Mustafa Shehata) until his 20th birthday.

His mother, Sakina (Islam Mubarak), has her baby blessed during a Sufi ceremony. A whirling dervish ritualistically counts aloud before falling into a trance on reaching the number 20. Villagers interpret this as God’s command that Muzamil must die then. The holy man, unsuccessfully attempting damage-limitation, tells Sakina: “By God’s will there is light in his eyes.” Muzamil is taunted as “The Son of Death”, and his family socially isolate themselves. Sakina wears mourning, unable (despite her faith) ever to rejoice and be glad in each day that the Lord has made.

Amjad Abu Alala’s debut film asks what do we do with the time allotted to us here on earth. Muzamil’s father, Alnoor, cannot cope with his son’s fate and absents himself, toiling in surrounding countries. Sakina notches up the months and years on a wall. For her, Muzamil is already dead. In a pietà-like tableau, she cradles his outstretched body.

Yet the film itself is suffused in light, thanks to Sébastien Goepfert’s cinematography. Sunbeams break into the darkest of rooms; but these country folk are in thrall to superstition. They have equated self-imposed oppression with Sufi’s ascetic mysticism and aim of perfection. Few are prepared to acknowledge (to quote Leonard Cohen’ s Anthem) that “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

A couple of characters do recognise another way. One is Sulaiman (Mahmoud Maysara Elsaraj). He left the area at an early age before returning home a gladder and wiser man. As a cinematographer, his ability to paint with light provides an apt metaphor through which to illuminate Muzamil’s gloomy world. You don’t use your brain to think, he says: only to memorise words. (The youth can recite the whole Qur’an.) There are echoes of Cinema Paradiso (Arts, 31 January 2014), in which the boy Toto comes to love how film questions traditional values.

The other shaft of enlightenment comes through Naima (Bunna Khalid), a young woman overflowing with love. She has found an inner freedom more in keeping with true Sufism than the strictures of institutional religion. Crucially, she warns him that believing that he will die at 20 could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

In a sense, this film is a converse of the Sleeping Beauty story. Instead of falling into deep slumber on reaching adulthood, Muzamil — encouraged by others — has never been fully conscious. Unaware of the light in his own eyes, this solitary figure has ignored a famous Sufi saying: “Do not feel lonely: the entire universe is inside you.”

Viewers will ache throughout the piece for a glimpse of resurrection. Given that the film is dedicated to victims of the Sudanese Revolution, it, if a little too obviously, is a rallying cry not just to Muzamil, but the whole nation. Sleepers, wake.

On current release

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