'You Will Die At Twenty' Is Sudan's First Ever Academy Awards Entry The film is first Sudanese feature made in 20 years, and only the seventh ever to come from the country. It's being submitted for consideration for the Oscar for Best International Feature Film.
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'You Will Die At Twenty' Is Sudan's First Ever Academy Awards Entry

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'You Will Die At Twenty' Is Sudan's First Ever Academy Awards Entry

'You Will Die At Twenty' Is Sudan's First Ever Academy Awards Entry

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/963286387/965261789" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Ninety-three countries are vying for Oscar consideration this year. And for the first time, a movie from Sudan is among those in the running for Best International Feature Film. NPR's Neda Ulaby spoke with the director, whose movie is also the first made in Sudan in decades.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: The film is called "You Will Die At Twenty," a grim title for a tenderhearted story. It's not about war or conflict. It starts with a celebration. A couple presents a baby to their village leader for blessings.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, non-English language spoken).

ULABY: But, unexpectedly, a man at the party keels over and dies. Startled, the village sheik utters a prophecy, this child will die at 20. From birth, he is already almost a ghost.

AMJAD ABU ALALA: I wanted to see how stories can be told into Sudan because it's very unique, actually. And Sudan is the heart of Africa.

ULABY: Director Amjad Abu Alala adapted the story about a child growing up under a cloud of dread and diminished expectations, a meditation on mortality.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, vocalizing).

ULABY: It's rife with exorcisms, dervishes and a thwarted romance with a confident girl. As a child in Sudan, the director's mother worked in a public library. She gave him books by Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Magical realism inspires this movie from a country where Arab and African worlds swirl together.

ALALA: In the faces, in the language - Arabic language, the African faces. The culture is mixed, Islamic but very African roots. It feel like the land of untold stories, unseen faces.

MICHAEL ROSENBERG: It puts you in a very different place than Americans are used to being.

ULABY: Michael Rosenberg's company, Film Movement, is distributing "You Will Die At Twenty," a movie that won Best Debut at the Venice Film Festival and enraptured critics.

ROSENBERG: We got a review in The New York Times. And it was a critic's pick. And we got a critic's pick from Variety. And we got a rave review from the Los Angeles Times.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "YOU WILL DIE AT TWENTY")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, laughter).

ULABY: With special mention given, for example, to the cinematic poetry of children playing in the Nile. The movie can be watched through the websites of numerous art house cinemas. Its challenges, says director Amjad Abu Alala, ranged from getting financing to film in a country with virtually no infrastructure to the shoot in December of 2018.

ALALA: That happened to be when the revolution started.

ULABY: You say that so casually. What was it like to be filming when the revolution started?

ALALA: Mixed feelings.

ULABY: Imagine finally making a project you've dreamed of for years right when the pro-democracy movement you've also dreamed of messes up your movie. Fighting was never close to his set. But Alala was not able to pick up four tons of equipment he'd shipped from Egypt for 10 of the 24 days he had to film.

ALALA: Because it was hit and run, I can never know what will happen.

ULABY: He could not know the authoritarian Islamic government would get paranoid about his script even though they'd approved it. To be fair, Alala had given them a fake version, leaving out the kissing and the alcohol.

ALALA: They start sending spies on the set. And we know them. That one, the spy. That the spy. And actually, we found a way to deal with them, like get them involved in the fold (laughter).

ULABY: Some of the spies are extras and even helped cast other spies. Alala just signed with a top Hollywood agency, CAA, home to Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. Not bad for a guy representing a country that was banned by the Trump administration until two weeks ago. Alala says, for him, a revolution is just beginning.

ALALA: It's a revolution for artistic freedom, freedom of art.

ULABY: The Academy announces its shortlist of 15 movies for Best International Feature on Tuesday. Even if his film is not on it, director Amjad Abu Alala feels he's won.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMINE BOUHAFA'S "THE CAMION")

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