Ajyal Film Festival in Doha featured two Sudanese films this November: A documentary by Suhaib Gasmelbari entitled "Talking About Trees" and the feature film "You Will Die at Twenty" by Amjad Abu Alala. That something fresh is happening in Sudanese cinema is evident by the evocative titles of the films screened at the festival. They are siren calls for the adventurous film-goer, ready to investigate who might be talking about trees and to what end, and who it is that is destined to die at 20.
"Talking About Trees" is a documentary about four veteran Sudanese filmmakers who have been deprived of the means to practice their craft. They are filmmakers who have seen the heyday of Sudanese cinema in the 60s and 70s, and who have got together to try to re-open an open-air cinema, a very difficult feat in a Sudan where gathering in public places are held to be suspect. The viewer gets a very good sense of what the practice of watching and making films is up against in Sudan. You get a sense that the state, through TV news and the loudspeakers of the mosques, wants to monopolize the soundscape in the country along with much else.
The film follows these veterans' process of planning, negotiations with the authorities and conversations about their own education and trajectory as filmmakers. The scene in which one of the directors tries to locate his film in a Russian Film School archive is a reminder of what a different place the world was in the 70s. He dials the number and starts speaking in perfect Russian, excusing himself to the person on the other end of the line for his rustiness in the language: he hasn't spoken it for years! A world in which the Soviet empire had an extensive cooperation program with unaligned "third world countries" lest they should be swayed toward the American view of the world. The narrative weaves the past and the present beautifully together reminding the viewer that there is a rich cinematic heritage Sudan can build on.
'You Will Die at Twenty'
The feature film, "You Will Die at Twenty," starts with a mother bringing her newborn baby to a zawiya to be blessed, but the opposite happens and a prophecy is declared about the baby being destined to die at 20 years of age. We then follow the story of the boy Muzamil and his mother Sakina as they try to come to terms with this prophecy, and as the father of the family leaves them due to what seems to be existential despair.
The film, like the documentary, gives a very nice slice of Sudanese life, this time in the countryside. The colors are as beautiful as you would expect and the way people go about their everyday business has a very particular Sudanese grace to it. While through the religious prophecy the boy's life has been made precarious, other manifestations of religious life seem very soft and laissez-passer. Like in a Greek tragedy, the characters are torn between resisting the prophecy and submitting to it altogether. Sakina tries to keep Muzamil by her side at all times, not sending him to school, but is warned by a neighbor that he must go to the mosque and learn the Koran because by 20 he will have become an adult responsible for his deeds. As you would expect, Muzamil becomes a very good reciter and has a very sweet graduation ceremony where the sheikh congratulates him for memorizing the Koran in two different recitation styles and the women present ululate. This scene is an embodiment of what I understand to be Sudanese Islam, women and men sharing public space and voicing their joy together.
The soft rules that govern relationships between men and women seem to be at work in Muzamil's love life too, as he has a girlfriend, Naima with whom he sits and dreams about the future by the banks of the Nile. Both families and the village know about the affair, and there doesn't seem to be any element of shame or secrecy in their behavior. The only objection the families seem to have is that the boy doesn't have much time to live as a condemned man. Naima, however, keeps on talking about what kind of house she wants to have when they get married, defying the death sentence with her youth and beauty, almost willing Muzamil to live beyond his prophecy-bound 20 years.
The death sentence can be read as a metaphor in several ways. It can be seen an allusion to the sufi practice of imagining your death and grave- Muzamil does go to his own grave and is given incense for his own funeral at some point, in order for you to be more aware of the hereafter in this world. It can also be read like a sentence hanging over the Sudanese youth in general, a youth that will have their dreams taken away from them by the time they reach 20.
As his 20 years approach Muzamil's mother tries a last resort, of crossing the Nile over to the tribal areas where they practice "zar," a regional method of exorcism, where one of the demons represented wears an Ottoman fez. We see Sakina dance as in a rave, almost mimicking the movements of the Sufis at the start of the film which led to the pronouncement of her son's fate in the first place.
With his father away for most of his life, Muzamil's gets an unlikely male role model in Sulaiman, who, it turns out, was making films in the heyday of Sudanese cinema, a fictitious version of the filmmakers of "Talking About Trees." They watch films on his projector and he tries to initiate Muzamil into a more worldly world full of possibilities.
Both "Talking About Trees" and "You Will Die at Twenty" reminds us of the transformative power of cinema, and how an understanding of a country's cinematic heritage initiates the viewer in turn about Sudanese culture and where it is heading. In "You Will Die at Twenty," Naima's optimism pushes us forward and we refuse to accept the fate prescribed for Muzamil. In "Talking About Trees," the interviewed young generation's enthusiasm for enjoying a film at the cinema on the big screen rather than watching it on your computer gives the signal that a resurgence of film screenings in licensed cinemas cannot be that far away in the future. Both films define the cinematic landscape of Sudan, and it looks like very exciting times lie ahead.