(US Theatrical Release Summer 2023)
Away from the familiar sight of the Mediterranean Sea’s pristine beaches, Tunisian-born director Youssef Chebbi’s film Ashkal (2022) investigates what it means to surrender to envy and to our darkest desires in a country substantially defined and consumed by fire. Ashkal won the highest award at the Pan-African Fespaco Film Festival, and it premiered at the 2022 Cannes Festival Directors' Fortnight. Having screened at MoMA’s New Directors festival last April, it will be distributed in US cinemas this summer.
The film is part crime thriller, part political drama, with supernatural and speculative elements. In the Gardens of Carthage, just north of Tunis, police officers Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) and Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) are called in. A burned body was found dead in one of the abandoned building sites of the real estate project started during the dictatorship of Ben Ali. More mysterious deaths of this nature quickly multiply in the area—deaths by fire that appear voluntary but lack the usual hallmarks of politically-motivated immolations.
The officers are pressured by their higher-ups to move on quickly, to privilege suicides or killings by young men who live and work around the area. Indeed, the police corps has more existential worries, closer to their interest of self-preservation. While these incidents are taking place, factions of Tunisia’s post-revolutionary landscape are settling political scores. Fatma’s father is a leading figure behind the newly established Truth and Dignity Commission, which seeks to expose the police brutality, corruption, and forcible disappearances that marred Tunisia’s former regime. As a consequence, her work and intimate relationships are fraught.
Fatma not only perseveres and proves her individual worth to reluctant colleagues, she also affirms her own voice, as a young woman following her intuition and thereby making herself heard by the patriarchal, old-guard-dominated milieu. In doing so, the policewoman discovers who she is while surmounting external and inner hurdles. Crucially, she is confronted with one haunting question: at what cost should truth be attained?
Chebbi’s Tunisia is as dark as the film’s grim lighting, a notion visually elevated by cinematographer Hazem Berrabah. The film gracefully paints a noir atmosphere around a landscape suspended in time. The aesthetic, combined with the intensity of unfinished construction void of humans, creates a harrowing and foreboding sense of dread. Desaturated vistas are revived by the chromatic burst of macabre burnings—as if death were a guide lighting the way.
In its depiction of long days and nights of confusion and mysteries, one can sketch an allegory of the Tunisian Revolution itself—an incomplete process, an uncertain maze, a country as a terrain vague where fallen heroes and desperate citizens burn under the weight of unfulfilled expectations.
Ashkal shows many of the ills gripping Tunisia’s society. For instance, corrupt police officers seem to continuously hold an upper hand, a narrative that gestures towards the unresolved narrative of the Tunisian Revolution itself (a revolution for what after all?).
In the film’s chosen urban setting we gaze at glaring social inequalities. The fancy modernist residential areas of Tunis’s bourgeoisie are spatially located close to the subordinate place of Black asylum seekers and migrants illegally working in the construction sites and living in harsh conditions.
We also approach physical objects—buildings, residential towers—as characters. Sometimes, it is almost as if they were telling us this story of haunted acoustics and shadows. Wide-angle shots underscore their material charisma as a reliable presence—reinvented pillars of wisdom, derelict obelisks—amid the investigation’s commotion and the sense of life slipping away. Each of the main characters will experience a loss—whether of life itself, love, or trust. The deaths scratch against the veneer of comfort and stability; there’s something bigger than payback and more perplexing than suicide looming.
The film weaves political, social, and psychological elements of violence together while also touching upon the spiritual possibility of redemption. It opposes the acts of seeing and feeling, thinking and perceiving in Fatma’s multi-sensorial quest to unveil how victims acquired the hypnotic fire that destroyed them. Fatma needs to dig deeper, and she needs to do it alone, into the hard evidence collected on the crime scenes, as well as within herself in order to rely on analytical and mystical insights, both of which will be critical to her investigation. She must chart a new path against rationality and the established conventions that lead her character to demonstrate that the toolkit we are given in life is never quite enough to make sense of it, unless we rise above and follow our own intuition. She evolves from being a young, smart woman who ring-fences her true emotions as a strategy to “fit in” to someone who embraces the pull of a symbolic warmth—Ashkal’s fire.
Chebbi’s exploration of incandescence is inscribed in Tunisia’s recent history with the immolation of fruit seller Mohamed Bouaziz in 2010 sparking the start of mass protests and the Revolution (and the many immolations that followed). But it may also hark back to the ancient times of Carthage, the Punic civilization that established an empire during the eighth to the second century BCE in present-day Tunisia.
The construction site—Gardens of Carthage—evokes this genealogy. Beyond embodying the well-to-do current location of the presidential palace, the area was home to pre-Islamic temples and rituals that considered fire as a sacred expression of purity. Some claim that Carthaginians used to immolate adults and children as sacrifices to please their gods during hardships. Fire symbolically cleanses; it sets anew.
With echoes of the contemporary woes of Tunisia—a return to dictatorship in 2021 amid a significant economic crisis that drives people to undertake dangerous boat journeys across the sea—the film’s fire suggests that after much suffering we can rebuild from precious ashes. But who will remain by then? Fire is hard to contain, which the film brilliantly demonstrates. Chebbi’s calcined bodies didn’t die for a cause—at least, we are not told about one. Is it all futile then, to die?
Chebbi has credited Akira Kurosawa as one of his filmmaking influences, which is palpable in the way that his fluid camera becomes a tool for empathy and subtle critique, as well as his use of music to heighten tension. The film’s multilayered complexity is enthralling, a remarkable feat given that it is Chebbi’s first feature-length. As a gothic-without-romance proposition, Ashkal remains unclassifiable by blending different genres and combining hyperrealism and elusiveness with poise and maturity.