Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation
by Hope Madden
The haunting visual poetry of a cityscape littered with abandoned buildings and new developments is home to Youssef Chebbi’s latest, Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation. The apt title describes not only the film’s plot – a mystery concerning a string of suspicious suicides – but also the identity of a country itself.
As Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) and Batal (Mohamed Grayaâ) investigate the apparent self-immolation of a security guard at a high-rise construction site, they uncover evidence of an earlier, similar death that had been hidden by their police department colleagues. Why hide it? In a country where self-immolation – that astonishing act of defiance – triggered a revolution in 2010, these deaths feel particularly ominous. Especially for the corrupt.
As tyranny and its allies, police and corporate corruption, once again thwart justice, an epidemic of self-immolation spreads like a contagion through the city.
Oussaifi delivers a quietly fierce performance, one that Grayaâ counters with unexpected tenderness. Both actors are given plenty of room to breathe, Chebbi lingering with each in their private moments to allow for introspective, patient character development.
Those quiet moments look amazing, too. Ashkal is gorgeously filmed, Chebbi finding symmetry in the bones of the buildings and unexpected beauty in the fire. An evocative use of color, shadow and light create a hypnotic fusion of supernatural fantasy and police procedural.
The context is specific to Tunisia, but the themes are universal. As greed and corruption overwhelm a city, victimizing the poor and the powerless, political protest blends with cultural grief. Simultaneously pessimistic and hopeful, grim and beautiful, Ashkal is a meditation on modern times.