The sense of dread has a firm grasp of you throughout Youssef Chebbi’s Ashkal. A haunting film that never reveals its hand too much, it is one that will undoubtedly linger in your mind.
In the Gardens of Carthage, a district of Tunis initiated by the former Regime whose construction stopped at the beginning of the Revolution, two cops, Fatma and Batal, find a burnt body in one of the lots. As construction slowly resumes, they start looking into this mysterious case. However, when the event repeats itself, the investigation takes a puzzling turn.
Self-immolating by fire is one way to go, and in the manner that people in Tunis are dying without a fight. This symbolism of having characters do this as the police force almost helplessly watch on is integral to understanding the unrest that was and is happening there. The self-immolating people are not powerful or rich people; they are common folk trapped in a situation they cannot escape with authorities unable to solve fast enough to improve their lives. It is a powerful premise, one of many reasons Ashkal hits you as well as it does.
In Ashkal the Gardens have become a place for those who are lost to roam; this haunting concrete structure feels more like a haunted house and is a great set piece for our story to be surrounded. As Fatma wanders around late at night, you gain the feeling of being so isolated. The bustling streets feel an age away and to be there at any time is more out of hopelessness. Why would anyone willingly venture there and be around these bare, cold shells? In fact, the structures are the perfect analogy for the people that visit them. Left by society to struggle on, with no chance of improving, of becoming who they dreamed of being. Harem Berrebah captures the desolation of these buildings fantastically well, so when fire inevitably comes, it brightens the screen more than you expect, sometimes luring you closer than you want to be.
Ashkal is far more concerned about asking questions than giving us a fulfilling answer, and it works well here. It highlights the truth in our world; sometimes, answers and justice are a struggle to find and can leave us just as perplexed as the next person. With how Youssef Chebbi has built his film throughout, you accept it. We follow our two detectives and want to learn more about them. However, Chebbi gives us the roughest of outlines on them and allows his cast to flesh themselves out. He is concerned about the story and the mystery of what is happening in his neo-noir film.
The investigation is front and centre and almost refreshing in that it allows us to learn about the world without being distracted. We are given just enough to feed on, care about our characters’ personal lives, and see the tension within the city. However, there is this itch at the back of our heads wanting more. It could be due to his boldness to focus mainly on the story and away from these detectives that we want to know more about. Luckily his mystery is compelling enough without us losing interest. After all, who wouldn’t want to discover why people are allowing themselves to die this way?
All of this excellent work accumulates with a mesmerisingly haunting finale in Ashkal, leaving us nothing but impressed. An unnerving film that wraps you up with a horrible sense of dread throughout.
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