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Sudan sends a film to the Oscars for the first time

'You Will Die at Twenty's submission to the Oscars was announced a month before the second anniversary of the start of the Sudanese uprising

A still from the Sudanese film 'You Will Die at Twenty'
A still from the Sudanese film 'You Will Die at Twenty'

(AP) -- Nearly two years after the overthrow of autocrat Omar al-Bashir, Sudan is taking steps to rejoin the international community from which it was long shunned. That includes its film industry.

For the first time in its history, Sudan has a submission for the Academy Awards. Produced by a consortium of European and Egyptian companies but with a Sudanese director and cast, You Will Die at Twenty will compete in the Best International Feature Film category.

The story follows a young man whose death at the age of 20 is prophesied not long after his birth, casting a shadow over his formative years, and parallels the burdens placed on a generation of Sudan's young people. Based on a short story by Sudanese novelist Hammour Ziyada, critics say it demonstrates that the country's cultural scene is reawakening after decades of oppression.

The film was produced amid mass demonstrations against al-Bashir, who was toppled by the military in April 2019 after ruling the country for nearly 30 years. "It was an adventure," filmmaker Amjad Abu Alala told The Associated Press. "There were protests in the streets that had grown to a revolution by the beginning of filming."

Sudan's uprising erupted in late 2018, and as the number of people in the streets swelled, many of them young, the military stepped in and toppled the Islamist president. Since then, the country has embarked on a fragile transition to democracy, ending years of theocratic rule that limited artists freedoms.

The film's submission was announced in November by the country's ministry of culture, a month before the second anniversary of the start of the uprising.

The film has received positive reviews from international critics. It premiered at the 2019 Venice International Film Festivals parallel section, Venice Days. It won the Lion of the Future for Best First Feature—the first Sudanese film to do so. Since then, it has won at least two dozen awards at film festivals worldwide.

Abu Alala says his team tackled obstacles in making the film, thrown up by the same conservative milieu that it depicts. He blames the environment created by al-Bashir, who came to power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989. Under his rule, limited personal freedoms meant art was viewed with suspicion by many.

One major challenge, he said, was that local residents at the initial filming location objected to their presence. The crew was forced to move, but they persevered. "We believed that it should be done under any circumstances,” Abu Alala said. He says that it was lucky that the films production period coincided with the cultural watershed moment of the uprising. The previous government wouldn't have been a proponent of his work.

The movie has also been met with commendations from inside the region. "It is a very real and local film that makes the audience feel all of its details whenever and whoever they are," wrote Egyptian film critic Tarik el-Shenawy.

The film is only the eighth to be made inside Sudan. Abu Alala says that its selection shows Sudan has countless stories that remain untold. "There wasn't a film industry existing in Sudan — only individual attempts. Sudan's rulers — communists or Islamists — were not interested in cinema. They just were interested in having artists on their sides," he said. Now, he hopes that he and other filmmakers will have the freedom to share Sudan's stories with the world.

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