The compelling contemporary drama “Harka” takes place more than a decade after the start of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, yet its frustrated outsider protagonist must try to make his way in circumstances resembling those of Mohamed Bouazizi, the 27-year-old street vendor whose self-immolation sparked that revolution and brought a fresh focus on the country’s corrupt officials and lack of opportunity. Following the well-received documentary “12 O’Clock Boys,” U.K.-born, U.S.-based helmer-writer Lotfy Nathan A blistering feature debut, which highlights the daily indignities that can lead to desperation. The film world premiered in Cannes, where Adam Bessa’s superlative, all-in lead performance collected the actor prize in Un Certain Regard; six months later, it nabbed the directing nod at Saudi Arabia’s Red Sea fest.
Ali, a quiet, slim twentysomething Ali (Bessa), a Tunisian thesp, left Sidi Bouzid when he was a teenager. He now lives in squat on an abandoned construction site. Lacking an education, he works as an unlicensed gasoline vendor, a position that leaves him prey to the graft of the local police and the whims of his not-totally-above-board supplier (Hsouna Heni). He’s saving his hard-earned dinars to pay a smuggler to get him to Europe, where he hopes to find more opportunities and some dignity.
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Ali is close to reaching the amount of money he needs to leave, but family obligations force him to reorient. His father is killed by cancer. Skander, his older brother, leaves to work in Hammamet as a waiter. Ali has to care for his sisters Sarra (IkbalHarbi), who dropped out of school to become a cleaner, and Alyssa, still a student, from the family. After a while the trio is able to manage, Ali takes on more dangerous, illegal work. However, Ali’s dream of becoming a doctor is ruined when he tells them that their father left them liable for a unpaid bank loan. Their home will also be forfeited if they don’t pay the principal and late fees.
Ali’s efforts at everything prove futile. Although Tunisia has a law stating that children can replace their parents at work, there is nothing for him at his father’s company since the older man was gone for too long. And Skander reneges on providing the money he promised in a heartbreaking scene where the humiliated Ali feels as if the rich tourists at Skander’s restaurant disdainfully look right through him. He has no other recourse. His gasoline distributor won’t pay him, local bureaucrats don’t help him, the police beat him and other Tunisians treat him like a loser.
Although this narrative synopsis may sound grim, director Nathan’s surprisingly lyrical visual style and a poetic voice-over by Alyssa make the film transcend mere misery porn to something more poignant and profound. The sensitive, naturalistic camerawork by young German cinematographer Maximilian Pittner is attuned to the country’s landscapes as seen through Ali’s eyes, from the shabby, impoverished areas of Sidi Bouzid to the Hammamet seaside where he grabs a moment’s respite in the water, entering from a rocky outcropping rather than the beaches reserved for tourists, to the dusty border with Libya where hard-bitten smugglers swiftly exchange illegal goods while warily watching for the authorities.
The Cannes press kit reveals that the title has two meanings. Both of these are relevant to the narrative. The one meaning refers to illegal migrants crossing the Mediterranean by boat. The other is for those who want to burn.
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