Ashkal (2022)

Ashkal screened at the Imagine Film Festival 2022

“The Gardens of Carthage”, as text reveals at the beginning of Youssef Chebbi’s Ashkal, “is a neighbourhood in the North of Tunis. First built for dignitaries of the old regime, it was meant to become a modern, enterprising and rich city. In December 2010, an immolation set off the Tunisian revolution and the fall of Ben Ali. Construction of the neighbourhood ceased immediately. Now, construction works are resuming little by little.” 

While called ‘Gardens’, these abandoned, half-built edifices that form the setting of much of Ashkal are like concrete skeletons, bare and empty, and the ground surrounding them is a wasteland. They also serve as a potent metaphor for Tunisia itself, a post-revolutionary nation that is still under construction, with its nascent democracy under constant threat of being undermined by a despotic past that has still not been fully addressed. Like the country around them, these ghostly towers exhibit a potential that as yet remains unrealised. And as though it were a spark not yet ready to be extinguished, the immolation which triggered the 2010 Revolution will spread further in the film, echoing a protest of national despair that is not quite over.

Experienced policeman Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) and his younger partner Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) are called to the Gardens of Carthage to investigate a strange, lonely death: the charred remains of the building’s watchman have been found there. Batal and Fatma are under pressure to wrap up quickly what appears to be a simple case of suicide, but neither is convinced that things are so open-and-shut – and then more bodies, similarly naked and burnt, start to appear.

Meanwhile, Batal and Fatma themselves play out between them some of the tensions that plague Tunisia. Fatma’s father is leading a ‘Truth and Dignity’ Commission inquiring into police atrocities under the previous Ben Ali regime, ensuring that she is ostracised by all her colleagues save Batal – and Batal himself, a family man about to become a father yet again, was almost certainly complicit, if not an active participant, in previous police misconduct, and is still compromised and conflicted in other ways. For he is being forced to decide whether to help cover up the past, or to work with the Commission in exposing it, and is unsure which path is more treacherous. Here the future is always being built on the questionable foundations of recent history, and consequently everyone is destabilised. Perhaps it would be easier just to burn it all down and start from scratch.

With ‘ACAB’ graffiti visible in the background, these two police partners are trying to serve justice and do the right thing, even as the old brutalities and corruptions abide as somewhat derelict but still towering presences. As Batal and Fatma conduct their investigations, they pursue an elusive man in a hoodie (Rami Harrabi) who seems to be at the irrational epicentre of all these immolations, drawing others to his incendiary mission like moths to a flame.

Shot wide and distant by DP Hazem Berrabah, Ashkal is a chilly noir, and an alienating allegory of a state still being forged in the fires of its own destructive, dictatorial history. Here the revolution, far from being done, is serially being rekindled by the marginalised and the downtrodden, impatient for both change and justice that never seem really to come. Chebbi’s film grows ever more surreal, even supernatural, in a police detective scenario that is really a metaphor for a national crime scene where the same old outrages are still being enacted, and where the watchmen need watching. So take in its bleakly compelling message of mistreatment, malice and martyrdom, and let it catch fire. 

strap: Youssef Chebbi’s noirish policier is an incendiary allegory of inveterate tyranny and serially rekindled revolution in Tunisia

© Anton Bitel