an investigation in Tunis on the ashes of the revolution

Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) and Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) in


Youssef Chebbi confronts us with a wintry Tunis, pale and haggard, all shades of grey, a thousand leagues from southern clichés, for his first solo feature film (after several co-productions such as babylon and Black Medusa), presented in May 2022 at Cannes in the ranks of the Directors’ Fortnight. Ashkal is a dark and mysterious film, formally ambitious, which immediately places its director, born in 1984 in the Tunisian capital, in the galaxy of Arab neo-symbolism, betting on the visionary powers of the image, alongside his compatriot Ala Eddine Slim (Spell2019) or the Algerian Amin Sidi-Boumediene (Abu Leila2019).

“Ashkal” confronts two antagonistic tracks, one rational, the other irrational

The film takes as its setting a district called the “Gardens of Tunis”, a pharaonic program launched in 2010 under the regime of the autocrat Ben Ali to welcome a luxury clientele, interrupted by the “jasmine revolution”, which was the starting point for other Arab revolutions. Ten years and a little later, construction has resumed, but the site, with its vacant lots and its gaping concrete frameworks, nevertheless looks like a wreck, an open-air vestige and a dream petrified in the time of the reverse regime. If the ghosts of the dictatorship have to hang around somewhere, it’s here. Moreover, a wave of unexplained immolations occurs in the perimeter: a guard, then a chambermaid, and still others, consumed by the flames, recalling in this the desperate gesture which had triggered the first uprisings.

On these bases, Ashkal confronts two antagonistic tracks, one rational, the other irrational. The first track is that of the thriller under its depressive side, carried by the duo of inspectors to whom the case is entrusted: Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa), father with the face of a sad giant, and Fatma, formidable character of “boyish ” solitary with rare words and stubborn presence, interpreted by the dancer Fatma Oussaifi. Both tirelessly roam the wasteland, looking for a shadow: a mysterious hooded stranger, his face disfigured, seen furtively on the spot. The investigation takes place at a time of national tension, at the same time as the Truth and Reparations Commission is being held, supposed to settle police abuses during the dictatorship. Fatma’s father sits there, which attracts the hostility of her peers and her superiors.

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