What to watch at LFF: tragic thrillers from Africa

A macabre police procedural from Tunisia and a tale of family violence from Senegal offer feats of storytelling embedded in real-world political fallout.

7 October 2022

By Abiba Coulibaly

Xalé (2022)
London Film Festival

Among the African features at this year’s BFI London Film Festival, Xalé and Ashkal both deal with political fallout on either side of the Sahara over the past decade. Moussa Sène Absa’s family drama Xalé follows twins Awa and Adama, flitting between incidents that mark the duo’s adolescence, and their chilling repercussions 10 years later. In Ashkal, directed by Youssef Chebbi, a pair of police detectives investigate a cluster of burnt corpses discovered in Tunis, in the wake of the Tunisian revolution and its reverberations across the Arab world.

Both films commence with a viscerally graphic death, and while Xalé’s is an individualised act of vengeance, in Ashkal the original murder is repeated, the underlying rationale increasingly obscured with the discovery of each new body – suggesting, though never quite adding up to, a serial killer on a spree. In the aftermath of unrest in their respective capital cities, both films feature protagonists driven by the failings of Senegal and Tunisia’s political regimes to commit two vastly different acts of self-sacrifice, causing untold pain to others. 

Xalé is a study of tradition and entitlement within the familial sphere. While Awa and the gendered injustice she experiences constitute the crux of the storyline, her twin brother Adama’s desire to provide for her kindles a nagging obsession with emigrating to Europe by boat. Xalé approaches this issue from multiple perspectives, highlighting the tensions caused by Adama’s decision – via wistful parents and mocking friends – rather than presenting it as a simple, uncontested choice.

Adama’s longing to leave is driven by economic hardship, which he sees as structural in cause, lamenting “politicians have ruined this country”. The Tunisian revolution and its knock-on effects in North Africa completely refigured emigration across the continent by rendering previously sealed borders porous. But concurrent with these were protests south of the Sahara, near identical in both grievance (heads of states continually extending their term, and dire unemployment rates) and method (pro-democratic protests via occupation of public space). 

Adama’s trajectory reflects where the two intersect: socio-economic dissatisfaction in West Africa encouraging migration, and political collapse in North Africa facilitating it in increasingly precarious circumstances. Adama’s allegiance to Awa is so strong that the first time he’s about to board a smuggler’s boat to Europe he halts at the last minute, paralysed by the news of her ordeal.

Ashkal’s central duo are Fatma and Batal, two detectives perplexed by a series of immolations in a half-built residential area, in which victims’ behaviour (they remain completely motionless during burning, and undress methodically beforehand) defies explanation. Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolution, with the ‘Arab Spring’ following shortly after, and alongside Fatma and Batal’s localised investigation unfolds the national Truth and Dignity Commission: a systematic and highly contentious tribunal exposing the Tunisian state’s human rights abuses and corruption, which played out in the decade following the revolution. 

While Chebbi embraces the macabre and acutely political undertones, he also succeeds in crafting an unearthly and utterly gorgeous stylised thriller. Ashkal is resplendent with slick architectural imagery, his camera revelling in the construction sites of the ‘Gardens of Carthage’ neighbourhood with their angular concrete labyrinths, and gallow-like rows of exposed foundations and aborted buildings. Some viewers will spot hints of Michael Haneke’s Hidden (2005) in the form of unsettling infantile drawings, the spectre of a landmark national trauma, and its provocative rehashing via haunting videoclips.

The resultant tense dynamics between North Africa and its neighbours to the south, resulting from changing migration patterns, is hinted at in Ashkal. On finding their first victim, one of the detectives’ initial lines of questioning is conflict between foreign Sub-Saharan migrant workers and locals, and when probing the second death, Fanta, a Senegalese maid, is honed in on as a key witness, despite her best efforts at self-effacement. Incidentally, in Darija, the dialectical Arabic spoken in North Africa, the word ‘harragas’ means ‘those who burn’, but is a term used to refer to migrants who cross the sea having set aflame their identity papers in order to facilitate the asylum process. The same phenomenon is dealt with in Algerian director Merzak Allouache’s 2009 film Harragas. 

The victims recovered by Fatma and Batal are identifiable by the burnt remnants of their clothes left at the scene, and the documents these contain. At one point in Xalé, a commanding older man with white dreadlocks – one of the itinerant Greek chorus members employed by Absa throughout the film – strides along Dakar’s coastline. He pauses and scoops up a pair of soaked jeans washed up by the waves, before reproaching the exodus of Senegalese youth to “an Eldorado that does not exist”. 

With these items of clothing, some charred, others sodden, Ashkal and Xalé present two lamentations on the fatal lengths to which failing political regimes in contemporary Africa drive their youth.

BFI Membership

Become a BFI Member from £39 to enjoy priority festival booking as well as other great benefits all year round.

Join today