His family and friends called him Basbous because of his cheerful disposition and sense of humor. In postmortem interviews, they would note how much he loved to laugh. To the world, Basbous was Mohamed Bouazizi, a 27-year-old street vendor whose self-immolation ignited a movement. Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, part of the historic Arab Spring, was borne of economic discontent, frustration with corruption and lack of opportunity. It shifted power from the political elite to the people, inspiring Tunisians to wrest control of their fates.
Change is a slow process, though, and in the years after Bouazizi’s death, Tunisia did not bear significant marks of difference. Unemployment remained high. People still struggled to make ends meet. Many risked death to cross the Mediterranean, searching for opportunities elsewhere. Harka, Lotfy Nathan’s smart but capricious narrative debut, is set against this tumultuous backdrop. The film, which premiered in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar, is a steady, unintrusive observation of life after the Arab Spring.
A striking portrait of dignity and desperation.
Ali (Adam Bessa), a young Tunisian, represents the alchemic desperation resulting from broken promises and shattered dreams. At the beginning of the film, we see him bottling and organizing the contraband gasoline he hawks to survive. The meticulous sequence (the DP is Maximilian Pittner) is soundtracked by Eli Keszler’s throbbing music composition. A particularly arresting shot of Ali facing a concrete wall as he dejectedly lights a cigarette is hard to shake. His smooth back shimmers an almost iridescent blue, announcing Harka’s gritty and temperamental mood.
Ali lives a spare life. He squats in an abandoned construction site and mostly keeps to himself. He sells gasoline at the same place every day and saves what he can. He hopes to cross the Mediterranean, to find work and a different life in Europe. Occasionally, he hangs out with his always-scheming friend Omar (Najib Allagui).
Ali’s dreams of escape shrivel, however, when he learns that his father has died. The news forces the brooding young man to return home, where he stays to take care of his younger sisters Alyssa (Salima Maatoug) and Sarra (Ikbal Harbi). The spirit of that steely opening slips away, replaced by a more sentimental one.
That shift is brief, however. Harka darts between genre conventions: One minute it feels like a thriller, the next a heart-wrenching drama, another a psychological study. When the risky mix-and-match works — and sometimes it doesn’t — the results are emotionally potent. Nathan is fascinated by desperation, the kind that roots itself in the mind and soul. What lengths will a desperate person go to in order to survive? That is the essential, thrilling question coursing through Harka.
Ali’s desperation breeds a painful solitude underscored by his initially graceless homecoming. His tense relationship with his brother Skander (Khaled Brahem) and the stilted ones with his sisters give their early interactions a perfunctory sheen; this is a family of strangers bound by obligation. Bessa rightly and confidently plays up Ali’s self-conscious sulking with penetrating stares into the distance, dramatic pauses, the occasional pursed lip and slumped shoulders.
When Skander tells Ali that he’s gotten a new job as a dishwasher and waiter in the tourist town of Hammamet, Ali feels his imagined life slip farther away. He tries to get work at his father’s old place of employment, but his efforts are thwarted at the first interview. So, Ali returns to peddling gasoline. He begs the kingpin to put him on riskier jobs, which pay more than his current circuit.
Nathan, whose first film was the 2013 documentary 12 O’Clock Boys, observes Ali with a keen and oddly distant eye. Ali moves through Tunisia like an unsettled soul haunting a grave. He seems invisible, hopeless — qualities that serve the film’s broader, pessimistic ideological purposes. There were moments where I craved a sharper understanding of Ali as a person. Nathan has penned a script that aims to universalize Ali’s story, but this attempt makes the character sometimes register as too hazily drawn.
After Skander leaves, Ali becomes the sole caretaker of his sisters, and his relationship with them — especially with Alyssa — evolves, driving him to demand more from his country. Yet we don’t learn as much as we could about the two women. Sarra works as a cleaner for an unknown rich matriarch. Alyssa, the youngest, is in school and she guides Harka: Her voice opens the film and occasionally returns throughout, giving us insight into Ali’s skittishness and tortured psyche. The bond between Ali and Alyssa grows especially sweet; Nathan punctuates their conversations with comforting silences, smirks and knowing looks. It’s in these moments, when Harka burrows into the story’s key relationships, that the film finds its footing, delicately balancing the narrative of a man and that of a dehumanizing system.
Harka is, ultimately, about dignity and the struggle to exercise it. In a state that abandons most of its people in favor of a select few, dignity is entangled with survival. With each roadblock, Ali loses more of his will and himself; he floats through his life, unsure where to seek help or support. Even with its flaws, Harka is a timely story that gains new urgency as evidence of governments failing their citizenry becomes harder to ignore with each passing day.