Harka: how we made our Tunisian smuggling drama

American director Lotfy Nathan tells us about filming on location in Tunisia and how his story evolved out of the events of the Arab Spring.

Harka (2022)

Writer-director Lotfy Nathan’s debut fiction feature Harka focuses on Ali (Adam Bessa), a tense Tunisian who sells petrol illegally on the street. Ali lives on a building site and struggles to save the money needed to leave for Europe, getting into more difficulty when his father dies, forcing him to look after his younger sisters.

Bessa’s veracious performance, combined with earthy location shooting and noir-ish urgency give Nathan’s film a freshness that puts it alongside other recent North African gems from the festival circuit, including The Damned Don’t Cry, Cairo Conspiracy and The Blue Caftan (all 2022).

Harka, which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes last year, was shot in 24 days, having been written in fits and starts between 2010 and 2021. Nathan undertook between 10 and 12 research trips to Tunisia from 2014, having initially been prompted by the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010, the event many consider to have kickstarted the Arab Spring.

We sat down with Nathan on a cold March morning in London to discuss the making of Harka, the influence of westerns, and how his leading man helped coach the rest of the cast.

How did the case of Mohamed Bouazizi inform Harka?

Initially I was going to do a film that would’ve been a documentary-style recreation of his last months. I was really interested in the character element of that news and that there was a single person who was credited as the catalyst of this big thing. It felt very much like a movie, that there could be a character study that had this bigger scope. When I was starting to look at it, it was maybe 2014, I thought, I’ll go there and try to make this intimate story with a documentary discipline. That was the beginning of the whole journey in trying to understand it and then to interpret it for a movie. 

How did your research take shape?

We found what would become really great collaborators in Tunisia, this local production company called Cinétéléfilms. I’d go on trips with them to Sidi Bouzid and speak to people who claimed to – or did – know Bouazizi. It was funny because everyone said that they knew him. We would go to this small town to do some sleuthing; everyone had a story about him, but it was very hard to get something that had a sense of internal conflict. It wasn’t until I broke away from trying to tell the story about him and based it more on people I was seeing there – at a certain point I was no longer trying to research him; I was just meeting people who I thought were in a similar situation to him before he died.

Harka (2022)

When did you finally get to shoot?

That was in 2021. When it happened, it happened really fast and it ended up being really good that I had had all that time to look at the film from the outside. Just before shooting I decided to make the character a gasoline vendor instead of a fruit vendor. That took a lot of convincing with all of our partners. They thought that was a really unpleasant occupation for them.

Why did you decide to make that change?

With the time that it took to make the film and get it off the ground, I wanted it to still speak to me. I think what it was before became a little too quaint maybe. I liked the genre element of the contraband smuggling, and it was also more modern that he’s selling smuggled gasoline, which can be undersold by way of Libya. That was very specific to the place. Also, just aesthetically those structures that they sell the gas from, the trucks and going out into the desert, it seemed like we had to use that.

The film does have a very distinct sense of place. Was it always a question of setting it in Tunisia?

I think the story is very much about Tunisian identity. Because I’m not from there, I think it was even more important to be very specific where we shoot the movie. Because otherwise, it just becomes this diluted thing. 

We were working with partners in the US who were worried about filming in Tunisia. At one point there was a suicide bombing in the capital and it scared everyone about filming in the country, which was really unfortunate because it’s a safe place, actually. There was a time when we were talking about filming in Morocco, but I felt there were no bearings to telling a specific story. So it was a struggle, but we had to film it in Tunisia, in that specific town. That was always very important to me.

Your parents are Orthodox Egyptians who moved to the UK. Then you moved to America when you were 10. Did your own background have any influence on the making of the film or the way things came about?

I’d say my vague interest in telling a story of the region is because my family’s Egyptian. I don’t speak Arabic, though maybe look like I could be from there, but that’s pretty much it.

Presumably you had fixers on the ground or you had Arabic-speaking crew with you to get over any issues?

Absolutely. That was really the only reason we could make the film. I had a safety belt around me, an amazing script supervisor who I’d be watching every take with. She would tell me if we were deviating from the lines and if the inflection didn’t sound right. And the local crew was so generous in feeding into the script.

Was Adam the only professional actor on the shoot?

There were others who were aspiring actors. There’s a very seasoned actor who has a very brief cameo as the crazy homeless guy outside of the governor’s building. He’s a very prominent actor in Tunisia. But Adam was essentially the only professional actor day-to-day. And that was a great relationship. He would be pushing all of the non-professionals for performance, blocking and to be eliciting a reaction out of him. 

Did you have any issues with the local government or were you allowed to do what you wanted? 

There’s some semblance of free speech there. I was pretty surprised that we were able to just get the script greenlit, but we did.

You didn’t have any difficulties with the local police?

No. Ironically there was a protest that was scheduled right around the time we were going to film a staged protest, which appears briefly in the film. I went to film the real thing, which was really risky because you don’t want to alienate the authorities who are allowing you to shoot the movie. We could have been shut down for the rest of the production.

That must have been pretty scary.

I wouldn’t say it was scary. As it was happening I was thinking I wouldn’t want to sensationalise it after the fact, as we shot during a military coup. It was technically what was happening at the time. I remember feeling, when we were trying to get the film off the ground, how unfortunate it was that the Western view of a place like Tunisia is that it’s really fraught, the tourism industry gets decimated for all those reasons. I try not to embellish that stuff that we had to navigate there. I mean, I don’t feel any safer in the US.

Harka (2022)

How did westerns influence the film?

[In] my touristic interpretation of Tunisia, I just saw the western. That genre emerged out of the location, from an aesthetic standpoint. The western is also similar to the epic and David Lean films, which to me is really exciting. But I also was interested in 1970s American character studies, like Taxi Driver (1976). I felt that model in the story structure at least.

When I was learning how to write a script I had to squint my eyes at certain films and see how they do it. The first half of Taxi Driver is him trying to be normal, get a job, get a girlfriend before he goes off the rails. Similarly, there’s this vendetta against the greater nemesis that starts to percolate and then ends with this personal crusade. We took little elements of those things.

Is it true you’re making a biblical horror film?

Yes. My new film is an adaptation of an apocryphal gospel. It’s one of the non-canonical books that were written around the time that the New Testament was written; like fan fiction of the Bible. There’s this very dark story of Jesus’s adolescence that I’ve adapted into a biblical horror film. We’re aiming to shoot at the end of this year, beginning of next year.

Harka is in cinemas from 5 May and on BFI Player from 19 May.

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