More than ten years have passed since the revolutions of the Arab Spring, yet little has changed in Tunisia. In a recent NY Times piece, journalist Vivien Yee pointed out that "a new constitution and several free and fair elections have failed to deliver the bread, jobs and dignity that Tunisians demanded after ousting a longtime dictator." Times continue to be dire and democracy is still a faraway dream for Tunisia.
With Harka, a stunningly photographed film world premiering in Cannes in Un Certain Regard, filmmaker Lotfy Nathan points the cinematic finger at the issues of the MENA, which include corruption, lack of jobs for the younger generations, the complete absence of hope and just overall chaos. In his director's notes, Nathan admits "I come from a Coptic Egyptian family, although I was born in England, and grew up in the US," which somehow makes him the perfect person to tell a story of a man who dreams to escape, and yet is one of "those who remain," as the film's press kit states.
In fact, "harka" in Tunisia has two meanings: one is "to burn" while the other is a slang for migrating illegally across the Mediterranean by boat.
In Harka Ali, played by stellar French Tunisian actor Adam Bessa who will next star alongside Chris Hemsworth in Extraction 2, is a young man who dreams of a better life. He dreams of going to Europe, he wants to start his own business, and he works hard on the streets of his city every day, selling contraband gasoline on the black market. And yet, life in general is against him. His country Tunisia remains a complex disaster of just that corruption and bureaucratic chaos which drove street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi to his desperate act in 2010. That act of of self-immolation in the village of Sidi Bouzid kicked off the widespread revolutions we refer to as the Arab Spring, which spread like wildfire, pardon the pun, from Tunisia to Egypt, Syria and beyond.
Ali’s efforts are all basically squashed by a mixture of family obligations, personal tragedy and a world around him that just doesn’t care for his individual rights. Ali has two younger sisters and an older brother and when the latter has to leave the city to find work, Ali is left to care for the girls. His father dies, their house is repossessed because of the debts left by the old man and the rest is just one disaster after another. But this is not a Hollywood movie, Ali’s efforts aren’t those of a superhero, they are quiet struggles, those we all can feel inside, at a moment of need, when the world seems to turn against us. That is what makes Harka such a powerful, important film, and one that should be a must-watch on anyone’s list.
Nathan masterfully unfolds the story to his audience like a fairy tale, complete with a strangely hopeful ending, even though it is one I'll keep pondering and mulling over in my mind for weeks to come. I'll admit the film personally left me heartbroken, as if I'd watched a documentary about a man I pass often on the street, falling apart. Nathan's own filmmaking background is in documentaries but rare are the filmmakers who can make the jump to fiction in such a way to allow the best of both genres to permeate in their work. The cinematography by Maximilian Pittner is so sublimely intimate, it makes every nuance of the actors' performances palpable and thus, more tense and dangerous.
By casting the spellbinding Bessa, Nathan continues to display self assuredness, plus a great command of his craft, and by directing non-professional actors in the supporting roles, he allows for the reality of the situation to hit us like a ton of bricks. Bessa possesses just the right amount of charisma and pathos to make Ali a man we both can identify with and cringe away from. His anger lies close to the surface and we are shown how it can explode at any time. While we are given hints of his dharma and his personal tragedy from the very beginning, we also continue to hope for the best, because we like Ali, we feel his anger and we naturally dislike those who antagonize him. While Nathan envelops us in his story, DoP Pittner allows for the story to unfold, mostly by concentrating on Bessa’s eyes and expressive, though minimalistic acting.
The magic here is we never for a minute stop believing that Bessa is Ali and Ali is Bessa. But also Ali is Bouazizi, the same man in the same hopeless predicament ten years later, in a country where lives have been lost, the economy has continued to fall apart and nothing has really improved. And that is the true, real life documentary aspect of Harka, what makes the film such a heartbreak to walk away from.
Because Harka is that powerful. It's one of those films that may up actually changing the world -- at least the world around us. And teach us to care for each other, even if just a little bit.
Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Tunisia, 2022, 90mins
Dir: Lotfy Nathan
Production: Cinenovo, Kodiak Pictures, Beachside and Anonymous Content Production
International sales: Film Constellation
Producers: Julie Viez with Alex Hughes, Lotfy Nathan, Riccardo Maddolosso, Eugene Kotlyarenko, Nicole Romano, Tariq Merhab, Maurice Fadida
Cinematography: Maximilian Pittner
Editors: Sophie Corra, Thomas Niles
Music: Eli Keszler
With: Adam Bessa, Najib Allagui, Salima Maatoug, Ikbal Harbi, Khaled Brahem, Hsouna Heni