“I have been hiding behind producing,” says “You Will Die at 20” director Amjad Abu Alala. “I wanted to do that. I remember, last year, after my film won the Lion of the Future Award for best debut film at the Venice Film Festival, I got on the plane to the Toronto Film Festival and the very first question a journalist asked was what are you doing next? I didn’t even have time to breathe.”
A week after the Toronto screening, Alala was at El Gouna Film Festival, where “You Will Die at 20” won the El Gouna Golden Star for best narrative film. “That helped spread the word a lot,” says Alala. “A lot of people in Sudan, they don’t know Venice, but they know about Egypt because they have been raised on Egyptian cinema and stars for 100 years.”
This year, Alala has returned wearing two hats. For the most part, he’s here as part of the narrative feature jury at the El Gouna Film Festival. “I’m excited about being in a jury for an award I won before, giving the prize to someone else,” he says. He is also here with a project that he is producing, “Goodbye Julia,” which is participating at the CineGouna Platform (CGP), the industry arm of El Gouna Film Festival.
“Goodbye Julia” is by Mohamed Kordofani, a new talent, who made a lot of great short films,” says Alala. “My co-producer Mohammed Alomd’a and I, we set up the first production company in Sudan, called Station Films. We really believe in Kordofani, and ‘Goodbye Julia’ will be our first full production.”
In the film, Muna, an upper-middle-class retired singer from the North, struggling with her marriage, seeks redemption for causing the death of a southern man by offering the deceased’s oblivious wife Julia a job as a maid.
“The film is talking about very critical years in Sudan, when a peace agreement [was signed] with southern rebels and the government in 2005,” says Alala. “And a few months later, John Garang, the leader of Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, was killed.”
Alala, Kordofani and Alomd’a pitched the film to CineGouna SpringBoard – the project development and co-production lab for Arab projects, which awards several grants from a $250,000 cash pool. Already, “Goodbye Julia” is the first film to receive a cinema grant from the Sudanese Ministry of Culture, created by the new government after the removal of Omar Al Bashir last year.
In North Sudan, a civilian administration is governing alongside senior military officials before elections planned for 2022. Recently, questions were raised about the treatment of artists by the transitional government when Sudanese filmmaker Hajooj Kuka and several other artists were jailed and fined after being charged with public disturbance.
In August, Kuka was amongst a group of artists staging a rehearsal at a cultural center when neighbors complained about the noise. This led to a fight when police officers arrived on the scene.
“When Hajooj was inside the jail, we didn’t talk. But it’s not an artistic issue,” says Alala. “You can get rid of the regime, but after 30 years, sympathizers of the regime are still judges and police. So there are hardliners still in prominent positions and because of the nuisance call and the fight it became big, but it’s not about art, let’s be clear.”
On Monday of this week, the newly-minted Sundance Oscar committee met for the first time, and they have given directors with films until next Monday to apply to be Sudan’s international feature film Oscar entry. Alala is pitching “You Will Die at 20” to be the country’s entry. “It would be a dream for the Sudanese people. I want to make it [come true] for them.”
Alala also revealed that by the end of this year, he would decide on his next film, as he weighs up the merits of two projects. “One project is to adapt a work by a very famous Sundanese novelist, who I won’t name because it would be obvious which book I’m talking about, and the other was something that came to me during lockdown, which is a story set in Sudan before the birth of Christ.”