You Will Die at Twenty is a gorgeously crafted, melancholic exploration of what it means to live, what it means to die, and how the two intersect.
You Will Die at Twenty is a Sudanese film and the directorial debut of Amjad Abu Alala. The film, which premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festival and will get a U.K. release on November 12, tells the story of a Sudanese boy named Muzamil (played by Moatasem Rashed as a young boy, and by Mustafa Shehata as a teenager), who was told by a Sufi mystic that he would when he reaches the age of twenty. Muzamil grows up alienated from other children, living a life of religious servitude as he and his mother (Islam Mubarak) await the dreadful day of his death. Additionally, he meets and befriends an outsider named Suleiman (Mahmoud Alsarraj), who introduces him to cinema and makes him question the life he’s lived.
You Will Die at Twenty opens with an up-close image of a dead animal, which dominates the frame as many people ritualistically march past it in the background. This couldn’t have been more symbolic for the experience and themes of the film: a boy has the shadow of an early death constantly lingering over him, as he marches hopelessly through a life that was seemingly laid out before him and tragically out of his control. Not just because of the prediction of his death, but because of the over-protective, restrictive upbringing that he’s been put through possibly as a result of that prediction. He’s held back and sent down a path in life that he doesn’t necessarily want, and it’s implied that this is at least partially because his mother is attempting to keep him sinless as a means of bargaining her son out of his foretold fate.
I was initially hesitant to speculate on whether Amjad Abu Alala was saying something about the Islamic faith, but I since read that this was indeed part of the idea. He wanted to portray how religious decrees and powers can be, and, according to him, have been, used to keep people in line. Or, in this case, to steal twenty years of a person’s life. Even if you don’t want to interpret it that way, You Will Die at Twenty is still a sobering reminder of how limited all of our time on Earth is. Watching Muzamil go through his life with so little to enjoy and no real worldly experience makes you wonder how much of your life that you just let go on by.
When Muzamil’s lingering death is so much more omnipresent and his time to live is supposedly so much shorter, you take greater notice of every moment and how it will add or detract from the worth of that short lifespan. Even something as simple as the sensation of stepping in water suddenly feels crucial to Muzamil’s life. Which is why you’re rooting for him to find something that can help him feel like he’s lived a worthwhile life when his time comes, rather than having just come and gone like so many others.
But the biggest tragedy is that those opportunities are so often taken away from him because of his supposed fate. He’s taunted by other kids and therefore can’t play with them, he’s unable to be with the woman he loves because he’ll leave her lonely almost right away, and, as the fear and bitterness builds when Mazamil’s death draws nearer, his relationships, most tragically with Sulaiman, start to deteriorate. His death sentence wasn’t just a curse of the end of his days; it was a curse on all of his days, making them less valuable when they should have been made morevaluable.
However, you’re also wondering in the back of your mind whether or not that prediction of early death is even true. In some ways, there would be even greater sadness if it turned out to be false, as it would mean that Muzamil would reach his twenties with nothing to show for himself and nothing to look forward to. Without giving away what does ultimately happen, the ending is brilliantly symbolic of what it means to live, what it means to die, and how they can sometimes be one in the same. You Will Die at Twenty ends on an ambiguous sequence that reflects the tragedy of time lost, and depending on how you want to interpret it, it concludes the film on an either joyful or devastating note.
The entirety of You Will Die at Twenty is rich with striking, meaningful visuals like that, as well as the opening shot mentioned earlier, that go far above what some might expect for a director’s first feature film. Every shot is meticulously composed to reflect the mood and capture the beautiful yet desolate environments. This also includes the few instances where cinematographer Sébastien Goepfert plays around with the focus to give the film a bit of a dreamlike atmosphere in some of the most dramatic moments. Not much music is used, but the main theme of Hamine Bouhafa’s score will almost certainly stay with you with its grim yet spiritual sound.
Both Rashed and Shehata give great performances as Muzamil. Every second you look at this kid, you feel the weight of his future and how much it’s infecting every emotion and experience he’s going through. There are so few moments in the film where he looks genuinely happy, even during times where he knows should be, and the subtleties in his acting capture all of that. Islam Mubarak brings a lot of sympathy as his mother. You can see the dread she feels in the early years of his life, and a very underplayed desperation to find some way out of what has been prophesized, resulting in her over-protective nature.
The film’s only problem comes from a lack of focus in the middle. You Only Die at Twenty kind of meanders around in between its more crucial scenes and developments. You could argue that’s part of the point in portraying Muzamil’s life, but it isn’t always done in a way that furthers any character or themes. But that aside, You Will Die at Twenty is a quietly stirring, hard-hitting look at a boy’s dour predicted fate, how that affects his life, and how such a prediction can do more damage than an actual early death itself. I highly recommend you seek it out, see what an assured vision Amjad Abu Alala has, and hopefully come out of it with a bit more appreciation for the time you’ve been given.
You Will Die at Twenty is now available to watch on Digital and on Demand.