LFF 2022 ‘Ashkal’ Review: An Eerie Neo-Noir Burns Bright in Tunisia

Supernova Films, POETIK Film, Blast Film

One for the dedicated followers of neo-noir, Youssef Chebbi’s Ashkal mixes the recognizable structure of a procedural thriller with a unique grit and metaphysical uncertainty. The setup is pure noir, as two police officers investigate a construction worker’s death that many seem all too quick to write off as a suicide. It takes the diligent Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) little time to uncover clues that suggest the death is not at all what it seems, but various bureaucratic, political, and logistical barriers complicate her search for the truth.

Chebbi and co-writer François-Michel Allegrini cleverly utilize an inherently creepy location to find most of the film’s spine-tingling thrills – the mysterious death occurred in the Gardens of Carthage, a district of Tunis meant to be a gleaming example of capitalist progress, which was halted mid-construction at the beginning of the Revolution. The bare, looming gray beams of its abandoned buildings provide many vertiginous shot setups and delicious shadowy visuals that recall classic German expressionist filmmaking and the various iconoclastic crime genres that evolved from it. 

Ashkal veers regularly from one issue to the next and back again, but only occasionally loses itself in its ambition. Fatma’s investigation starts to turn up inexplicable eyewitness accounts and strange sightings, including piles of ash in odd places and a shadowy figure many people quietly describe, as if afraid of what they think they saw. As more deaths occur around the Gardens, all via self-immolation by people who showed no signs of suicidal thoughts or preparation for such an act, Fatma starts to suspect a supernatural coercion might be at play.

However, and here Chebbi and Allegrini harken back to one of the principal reasons noir has always held massive potential for social criticism, Fatma’s work is constantly hampered by regressive societal structures, including a barely-hidden contempt from male superiors that a female officer is turning in so much good work. On top of that, the other police officer on the case, Batal (Mohamed Grayaâ) grows more and more conflicted between his dedication to supporting Fatma as a professional and his damning history as a member of the Tunisian authorities’ most sadistic and abusive security services. Both Fatma’s gender and her father’s activist attempts to uncover terrible activities conducted by services like these during the Revolution provide Batal with lots of ethical and personal questions to wrestle with, often distracting him from police work as he tries to dodge the subject with his family yet considers providing crucial whistle-blowing information to an internal affairs investigator. 

Overall, Ashkal deftly creates a lean but thoughtful gallery of contemporary Tunisian moral quandaries, while weaving an eerie and engaging detective story that dips into the metaphysical just enough to qualify it as a heady, Halloween-ready chiller. 

Leave a Comment Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.