Like a terrible fortune cookie, You Will Die at Twenty shatters a young man's family

Sudanese Oscar hopeful examines the effects of living under a curse

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Here’s a simple setup for you. A new mother brings her baby boy, Muzamil, to a religious leader for a blessing. The kindly old man cradles the child and says nice things. Then, right next to them, a man repeating a prayer drops dead on the 20th recitation. That seals it, says the imam. Muzamil will die at 20.

The news shatters the family. Muzamil’s father leaves their Sudanese village, unable to cope. His mother (Islam Mubarak) sinks into a stew of misery, overprotectiveness and apathy. Educate the boy? Why bother?

But first-time feature director Amjad Abu Alala chooses to concentrate on the boy, played by Mustafa Shehata as a – well, presumably a 19-year-old. He’s hurtling toward that fateful birth/deathday, but the movie isn’t going to do anything so crass as give us a countdown timer. Besides, his mother never answered the question he asked her a child: Does time spent in the womb count?

So we watch as Muzamil tries to make sense of his short life. He has feelings for his childhood friend Naima – and she certainly does for him – but he can’t commit. He visits the local mosque in the hopes of having this divine judgment reversed, and ends up working there, and memorizing the Quran, to the astonishment of the village.


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But even as he continues this drive to piety, Muzamil befriends Sulaiman, an old man who has travelled the world and drinks alcohol and likes Western films and lives out of wedlock, all things that will make you a village outcast in rural Sudan. How to deal with the tug of living life fully when death is staring you in the face?

You Will Die at Twenty is Sudan’s Oscar submission for best international feature this year, and a beautiful, sombre parable it is. The director keeps us guessing to the final scene as to just what will happen to Muzamil. I couldn’t help thinking about the notion that curses aren’t real unless you believe in them – there exists a kind of placebo effect for the soul. All of which makes the line between fate and choice a razor’s edge.

You Will Die at Twenty is available Jan. 29 through digital TIFF Bell Lightbox (

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