Wednesday 17 November 2021

Marked for death: "You Will Die at Twenty"

You Will Die at Twenty, the Sudanese winner of the Best Debut prize at Venice 2019, has an inspired set-up. At a blessing ceremony being held in a small rural village, an event meant to confer nothing but good tidings on baby Muzamil's head, one of the celebrants suddenly keels over - a bad omen that all parties present interpret as proof the newborn is destined to get no further through life than a score of years. No appeals process, no quibbling; "God's command is inevitable," decrees the local sheikh, and the matter is seemingly closed. This biggest of judgement calls gets director Amjad Abu Alala and his co-writer Yousef Ibrahim (adapting Hammour Ziada's short story Sleeping at the Foot of the Mountain) into what it might be like to live one's life with a clock ticking loudly and rapidly above one's head - albeit a clock heretics like you and I know is entirely arbitrary and very likely inaccurate. As a boy, Muzamil is ringfenced by his devout, overprotective mother Sakina (Islam Mubarak), allowed out only to partake in religious studies that underline what he's already been told about some almighty power having the final word; his contemporaries dub him "son of death", which seems a more poetic nickname than "four-eyes" or "pizza face", but scarcely less damaging in the short-to-medium term. While the local elders, reminded of their own mortality, approach the teenage Muzamil (Mustafa Shehata) with caution and start referring to him in the past tense, local beauty Naima (Bunna Khalid) - spurred by the danger the kid represents, and genuine affection besides - seems keen to lead him down to the river to make a woman out of her before it's too late. Swings and roundabouts, then, but Muzamil's status also sets Abu Alala to considering the value of received wisdom. As Muzamil enters his late teens, and the film carries him ever closer to his predetermined expiry date, he begins to look a ready challenger to God's will, and indeed the wider, more immediately graspable status quo on the ground.

The film's triumph isn't just conceptual, but visual; Abu Alala offers images to back up his big ideas. We're offered a tour of a sunbaked but otherwise ordinary sub-Saharan settlement - the kind of village people might think of when they say it takes a village to raise a child - made up of a close circle of neighbours, themselves surrounded by seemingly endless places of worship. Yet every now and again, Abu Alala pulls off a vaultingly expressive cutaway: to the walls of a hut Sakina has repurposed as a giant tally chart, literally numbering her son's days by candlelight; to a dreamy madonna-and-child tableau at the site at which Muzamil was first cursed; to one of the most beautiful (and beautifully suggestive) images you'll see in a cinema this year, involving a horse. Scene by scene, this filmmaker is alert to the possibilities the world sets before this boy: a pan round the living quarters of Sulaiman (Mahmoud Maysara Elsaraj), a worldly yet poignantly solitary figure exiled to the outer reaches of this encampment after a falling-out with its religious elite, reveals pop music, beer bottles, a mini-museum of his late father's movie paraphernalia, and (at one point) the local brothel keeper oiling her legs in an adjacent room. It's a film composed of open doorways that present as forks in the road, visualisations of the quandary kids in any small town face: keep your head down and accept your allotted fate, or strike out in a new direction under your own steam - no matter that this, too, might be the death of you. That tension has been skilfully bottled in the central performance: Shehata makes Muzamil naive to the point of simple, in need of a certain guidance, but he's also curious with it - hungry for the life experience that's been denied to him, and to see how many more days and weeks he can eke out. That his quest becomes moving, even quietly thrilling in the film's second half can be taken as a sign of how successfully You Will Die At Twenty makes the leap from the small and provincial to the resonantly universal. Don't we all hear the clocks ticking a little louder than usual from time to time?

You Will Die at Twenty is now showing in selected cinemas, and available on demand via Curzon and the BFI Player.

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