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  • Reviewed at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

One of the inciting incidents of the Arab Spring was the self-immolation of a 27-year-old street vendor called Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia. His motivation was to protest the endemic corruption which made his life nigh on impossible. His death roused public opinion and the rest, as they say, is history… except it isn’t; not really. The years have passed but change has been slow. The old problems of inequality, corruption and injustice continue and are the subject of a furious denunciation in Lotfy Nathan’s impressive debut Harka.
 
Ali (Adam Bessa) is a young man, full of tortured brooding. He spends his days flogging black-market petrol out of Jerry cans on the street corner and nights sleeping in an abandoned building site. All the while he is stowing his cash with a plan to head for Europe. His loneliness and isolation are only partly alleviated by his ne’er-do-well pal Omar (Najib Allagui), with whom he has little in common except his poverty. 

This life is as hardscrabble and claustrophobic as an escape tunnel, but the prospect of escape is shrunk when his brother (Khaled Brahem) turns up to tell him their father has died and leaves him in the lurch to care for his younger sisters, Alyssa (Salima Maatoug) and Sarra (Ikbal Harbi). Things turn yet worse when a collector arrives from the bank with the unwelcome news that Ali has inherited his father’s debts along with his responsibilities. There appears to be some unexplained trauma in the past that instigated Ali’s alienation from his family and even now sees him preferring to sleep on the floor of the yard than take a room in what is effectively his house.

Ali is no passive victim of circumstance. He takes on more risk ferrying the bootlegged fuel cross-country.  He seeks out his brother to demand financial help. He even tries to get the city to give him his father’s old job, which he believes by rights is his. But he is stymied at every turn and a simmering fury begins to build. 

Nathan’s debut takes on social injustice through what is part psychological character study, part thriller. The drives to the border give the film some more scope and the prospect of moving up the criminal hierarchy, but even here it’s a game of snakes and ladders where Ali finds himself soon back to the beginning. Eli Keslzler’s soundtrack offers a pounding percussive agitation which perfectly suits Ali’s pent-up rage. Maximilian Pittner’s camera captures Ali in a vividly realised setting but also probes and follows his mental state as he begins to splinter.

Bessa’s performance coils tighter and tighter. He is a man of few words but there’s nothing impassive about his silence. When he begins to lose his grip on his situation, it begins to become apparent that he’s a lit cigarette surrounded by explosive fuel. The bribery he has to contend with doesn’t just rob him of money, it leaves without a place in the world, without dignity – at the lowest position. A brief visit to a tourist resort gives an impression of the gap between him and the first-world wealth on display. His T-shirt gets progressively grimier, such that you can almost smell it. His occasional forays into affection – especially with his young sister Alyssa, who he gifts a puppy – are roughly expressed. Teaching her to pick up the puppy by the nape of its neck rather than cuddle him, he could be expressing his own attitude to love.

Alyssa is also the chronicler of the film, providing a voiceover narration that is already turning Ali’s story into a fable of sorts. This smacks of compromise, trying to humanise Ali from the outside, contain him once more in the family drama rather than see him nakedly in his own terms. But that’s a minor gripe for a film of such a persuasive and powerful accusation. Nathan offers a deeply pessimistic view of Tunisia’s predicament. The poor are still desperate and now, the film’s ending suggests, even the most extreme measures might no longer provoke popular protest.

Sight and Sound, Summer 2022

Sight and Sound celebrates its 90th anniversary in style. Plus: the Cannes bulletin, Pedro Almodóvar, Ukrainian cinema, The Innocents and Edgar Wright interviewing Daniels.

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Originally published: 26 May 2022