With a title that can refer to either burning or, in more colloquial Tunisian slang, attempting to illicitly escape the country on a dangerous small boat crossing to Europe, Lotfy Nathan’s Harka sets out its stall early as a film about a man who is terminally trapped. Whether by fire or water, his story can only really end in tragedy, a microcosm of Tunisia as a whole, the country that set the Arab Spring into motion but never really received any benefits from its revolution, the cycles of power and disinterest continuing to crush the poor and needy beneath their wheels.

The man here is Ali Hamdi (Adam Bessa), a 20-something living in Sidi Bouzid, the city in which the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi kickstarted the Arab Spring protests and whose legacy still lurks menacingly as things continually fail to get better. Ali just about gets by, running a permit-less one-man petrol station and living in a half-finished house of an abandoned construction project, but the death of his estranged father suddenly throws new responsibilities at him, as his younger sisters are put under his care. With a foreclosure on the family home looming and the police constantly harassing him, Ali’s impossible situation starts to push him to a breaking point.

Bessa’s central performance (he’s one of very few professional actors in the film) is a powerful one, capturing the way in which constant injustices and grinding poverty actively wear out one’s sanity, day by day. Ali’s grip on life is already pretty loose when we meet him; he’s the black sheep of his family and his first scene has him lighting up a cigarette in a room full of half-open petrol jugs, and Bessa’s turn, combined with the almost sadistic plotting from Nathan, makes it clear that something horrifying is inevitably on the way.

Harka can be genuinely unsettling and upsetting at times, but at others it feels oddly underpowered, especially in the finale, which works far better on a thematic level than it does on a visceral, emotional one. At its best, it gets into the pit of your stomach, but there are stretches where you’re just going through the motions, most notably in the segment where Ali takes a nebulous smuggling job that brings him out to the Libyan border, which just isn’t as tense or exciting as it should be. The depressingly humdrum rhythms of Ali’s life might ring convincingly true, but they can get draining to watch.

Thankfully, Harka is rarely anything less than fascinating visually. Nathan’s use of colour and light is consistently gorgeous, and the way he captures the various living spaces inhabited by Ali and his sisters makes you feel as you know these places intimately – even the local bus station becomes personally familiar. It’s this sense of place that really sets Harka apart – even when the inevitability of the story’s plot beats starts to grind you down, the setting (and the anger and sadness housed in the place) keeps you hooked.


Written and Directed by Lotfy Nathan

Starring; Adam Bessa, Salima Maatoug, Ikbal Harbi

Runtime: 87 mins

Rating: 15