Cannes 2022 review: Ashkal (Youssef Chebbi)

Ashkal captivates but leaves a lot open for interpretation, riding on Chebbi’s good eye for shot composition and a pair of solid lead performances.”

A police thriller with a fantastical element, Tunisian director Youssef Chebbi’s first solo effort Ashkal (after co-directing the beautiful but somewhat uneven Black Medusa) leaves the audience grappling for meaning. What starts off as a neo-noir about a police investigation gradually evolves into a supernatural thriller, with an ending that is food for thought but will not satisfy everyone. Ashkal captivates but leaves a lot open for interpretation, riding on Chebbi’s good eye for shot composition and a pair of solid lead performances.

The Jardins de Carthage are a development project in Tunis that was started by the former regime under the rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, then halted when the 2011 revolution happened. Since then construction has been slowly resuming, yet many buildings are hardly more than a concrete carcass. Within this wasteland the immolated body of a caretaker is found. Detectives Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) and Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) are investigating the case and start questioning workers at adjacent construction sites, but higher-ups pressure them to consider it a suicide. Not long after another victim is found though, the body of a young maid. When two suspects are brought in they tell of a man they witnessed setting the girl on fire with his burning hand. When the bodies start piling up, Fatma becomes increasingly convinced that what’s behind these murders is not some regular serial killer, but something deeper.

The suggestion of self-immolation in Ashkal is a clear link to the incident that started the revolution in Tunisia just over a decade ago, when street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi set himself afire in protest. The film’s final shot, in which a horde of naked people runs into a large fire, is similarly connected. There is a strong political undercurrent in the film, as we return time and again to the hearings of a committee investigating the wrongdoings of the old regime. The committee is led by Fatma’s father and is a direct threat to the police force, many of its members already being in service under the old rulers. This, plus the fact that she’s a woman, makes Fatma an outcast to all except Batal, who is also ‘old guard’ but clandestinely is involved in taking his superior down for corruption. This particular plot strand is less developed and feels half-baked, but is another thread in a web of politics and suspicion at play in the aftermath of a revolution. Batal is an interesting character in between two worlds: a remnant of the former regime, he defends his old colleagues in an argument with his son-in-law, yet he also stands for the change that Fatma represents.

Like with Black Medusa, Chebbi’s strongest suit is his eye for powerful, intriguing visuals. He knows how to use space when composing a shot, and the skeletal unfinished buildings with their straight lines and stark contrasts between light and shadow are almost a character of their own, their imposing figures looming over the narrative and their maze-like layout becoming almost a metaphor for the labyrinth Ashkal‘s characters have to navigate to get to the truth. They are part of a mystery in which strange, unnatural things can happen, and Chebbi uses them to good effect, like in a shot where a character seems to disappear in thin air behind a support column.

The mystery itself isn’t resolved though, which will leave many a viewer unsatisfied. The nature of the man who lets his victims, seemingly willingly, undress themselves before he sets them on fire is left unclear, lost in the metaphor he clearly represents. Given how the victims are mostly from classes who suffered under the old regime, the film seems to say that the revolution didn’t bring about the change that people hoped for after Bouazizi’s act of despair led to the toppling of the oppressors. The film’s characters don’t take it as such though, which keeps the idea behind Ashkal open for interpretation. A bit more to hold on to would have made whatever message the film wants to send more powerful, whereas now we are left with a film that will leave you puzzled once the credits start to roll.