Jan. 22, 2021

“You Will Die At Twenty” crew on working with ARRI: “Very, very good equipment”

Sudan’s first-ever Oscar entry “You Will Die At Twenty” was shot and supported with ARRI camera and lighting equipment. Director Amjad Abu Alala and DP Sébastien Goepfert share insights about this piece of African film history.

Jan. 22, 2021

Sudan selected “You Will Die At Twenty” as its first-ever Oscar entry. Amjad Abu Alala’s first feature film was captured by Sébastien Goepfert with ARRI ALEXA Mini camera and Ultra Prime lenses from 16 to 135 mm, stabilized with TRINITY operated by Matthieu Lornat, and lit with M-Series, SkyPanels, Tungsten, and other lights. The project had been selected by ARRI’s International Support Program. Premiering at the 2019 Venice Film Festival, the film was awarded with the Lion of the Future for the Best First Feature, followed by more than 20 awards at other festivals around the world—and now there is a chance for the 2021 Academy Award for Best International Feature Film.

Amjad Abu Alala describes the decision by Sudan’s AMPAS-approved selection committee as “a historic beacon of hope”: “‘You Will Die At Twenty'’ is only the eighth feature film ever produced in Sudan. It’s unthinkable that a country of incredibly rich heritage and deeply rooted culture has only yielded eight films in over a hundred years.”

Set in a Sudanese village, “You Will Die At Twenty” opens with a mother who gives birth to Muzamil, a boy cursed by a Dervish prophecy that he will die at 20. Muzamil grows up surrounded by looks of sympathy, until Suleiman, a cinematographer who has worked in the city, returns. Suleiman’s cinema projector opens a window to a new world for Muzamil. In time, he comes to doubt the prophecy. When his 20th birthday arrives, he is torn between death and a bus to the world he is eager to know about.

With “You Will Die at Twenty,” Amjad Abu Alala wanted to make a “real Sudanese” film, which at the same time could be both Arab and African. “I’ve been always wondering how I could have shown visually this particular reality,” he explains. “I talked a lot about this during the concept phase. I luckily had the chance to work with Sébastien, the DP, who previously shot a feature in Tunisia. This helped a lot. We created a significant and unique dialogue between director and director of photography. This led us to find solutions like this and to give to the feature this kind of look. I wanted to avoid the typical representation of the African cinematography or a modern look which is usually present in the Arab one. I believe that in this case we have found our voice.”

For “You Will Die at Twenty,” the crew worked with a decent amount of camera and lighting equipment by ARRI. According to DP Sébastien Goepfert, “shooting with the ALEXA Mini was very supported for many reasons:” “In addition to the outstanding image quality, the ALEXA Mini was perfect for tiny indoor locations, and it was easy to switch between configurations, e. g. from handheld to working with a gimbal and TRINITY. Furthermore, we chose the ALEXA Mini, because the camera can easily deal with constantly high temperature as the 40° Celsius, we often had in Sudan during the day.”

Instead of using data intensive, but uncompressed ARRIRAW, ProRes was chosen as recording format. Sébastien Goepfert: “To manage a huge amount of data requires more effort, and under our circumstances we could not afford it. We needed something easy to handle. Also, we were very happy with the ProRes format, too.”

Regarding the lenses, the crew thought about anamorphic first. “But considering certain limitations and last but not least just simply the weight of the lenses made us chose Ultra Primes. For the director camera movements and smooth movements were very important and to serve that, the tiny Ultra Primes became a good and reasonable choice for working with gimbals and TRINITY,” Sébastien Goepfert points out. On a previous feature film he already worked with the lenses and learned to appreciate them: “The Ultra Primes are very interesting lenses, because they are very sharp with a good contrast. And I like the modern look. Also, Amjad was interested in a ‘indefinitive time look’—I found the Ultra Primes suitable for.”

In terms of lighting, three different kinds of equipment were in operation. Amongst others, M-Series daylight fixtures (M40, M18, M8), SkyPanels S60-C, and Tungstens (5K/2K/1K) by ARRI. Sébastien Goepfert: “Daylight fixtures we were using for indoor scenes and to recreate this kind of very hard sun, because Amjad wanted something dark inside but feeling this kind of harsh sun coming from the windows and all the dust… a nice effect. To have this kind of geometric shape and also pictorial aesthetic, and also to compensate sometimes when we shot with sun backlights, to compensate the indoors, as outside the sun was very harsh. I was also using daylight fixtures to compensate with bouncing sometimes.”

SkyPanels were used more for the night scenes. Sébastien Goepfert found them “very useful”: “Especially in those scenes and locations proper power supply was not available. Having battery supplied SkyPanels was perfect sometimes with the support of car lights. But I was also using different settings, for example to recreate the light of a film projector in some scenes, to recreate this kind of dimmed light. Also, for the scenes with candles to imitate this kind of moving light on the faces, very fine tuned.”

The SkyPanels were operated both with the onboard control and sometimes wireless, especially for the night scenes near the water. “I was behind the camera and my gaffer was next to me with the application that I was able to see the lights and to give him precise instructions like ‘more or less light’. So he could immediately react and change. It was a very good way and quick,” the cinematographer remembers. “Also it was very interesting to change the colors. You can change the intensity, sometimes you can say more or less blue, more yellow. It is a very, very good equipment we enjoyed working with.”

For two days, TRINITY operator Matthieu Lornat joined the production. “With Amjad we thought about the TRINITY, because we could have the low and the high angle in the same shot, I mean low mode and high mode, to create a kind of choreography between the actors and the TRINITY. We shot very choreographic scenes,” Sébastien Goepfert clarifies. “It has been very useful for stabilization as we had lot of scenes where we followed a car. Especially in the final scene the camera is on the car on a very bumpy road and so the TRINITY has this kind of smooth movements on Muzamil to follow the car. Without the TRINITY it would not have been so easy to shoot these scenes, with all ups and downs.”

After years of preparation and months of shooting, Amjad Abu Alala and his crew succeeded in creating a piece of African film history that even has a chance to win the world’s most prestigious film recognition, the Oscar. Amjad Abu Alala: “I hope ‘You Will Die at Twenty’ serves as a reminder for both local and international filmmaking communities of the incredible potential of Sudan’s storytellers. I’m so proud to represent the country in its first-ever International Feature Oscar race—but I’m absolutely certain I won’t be the last.”

Production Credits:

Produced by: Andolfi (France), Transit Films (Egypt), Duofilm (Norway), Die Gesellschaft DGS (Germany)
Co-production companies: Station Films (Sudan), Film Clinic(Egypt)

Photos: Pyramide International