As a geographically challenged human, I had many questions while watching “Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation.” It began with “Where is Carthage?” The answer to which was: Tunisia. Obviously, my next question was “Where is Tunisia?” The answer to which is: northern Africa. No, I did not have to ask where northern Africa is because I remember my mnemonic device that tells me “Never Eat Soggy Wheaties.” So northern Africa is on the top of Africa!

This movie was homework, is what I’m trying to say. Luckily for writer/director Youssef Chebbi and writer François-Michel Allegrini, I’m the kind of weirdo who likes homework. If you are well-versed in the sociopolitical concerns surrounding Tunisia, which is way closer to Italy than I would have guessed without a Google, chances are you’ll find “Ashkal” to be a banger. It’s a slow-burn, hypnotic meditation involving real estate, religion, and people calmly burning to death. It is also a police procedural, but think more “True Detective” than “Law & Order: SVU,” as there’s no Ice T dropping hot memes.

Instead, we see Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) and Batal (Mohamed Grayaâ) investigating a suspected suicide. Things are immediately fishy, as the worker who supposedly killed himself on the grounds of the building project he was working on didn’t seem to panic when he lit himself on fire. A coroner confirms that he had no bruising, which tends to happen when you flail about whilst engulfed in flames. In short order, a second death in similar fashion is reported. Another employee associated with a rich dude.

Supernatural elements begin to creep in, as Fatma glimpses a wonky-faced creeper, and witnesses say one of the victims was “given fire” by an unidentified person. That person didn’t light someone on fire. He “gave her fire” with his hands. Batal involves local religious leaders, while Fatma takes heat from fellow cops because her dad is on a crusade to expose corruption. All of these symbolic materials are kindling for an ignition everyone knows is coming.

The best part of “Ashkal” is how the cinematography of Hazem Berrabah              and the score by Thomas Kuratli gel together to produce a hallucinatory vibe. Nothing happens for long stretches, but it feels quasi-terrifying. At least, it feels as terrifying as action like “driving at night” and “slowly walking to a car” can feel. It isn’t propulsive by any means, but the rhythm of it creates an odd, pleasantly upsetting effect.

If that sounds superficial, it’s because truly unpacking “Ashkal” requires a depth of understanding that can’t be easily accessed via search engine. It’s phenomenal when a movie like this drops you into a very real but wholly new place. However, deciding how much this is a window into that world and how much it is an impressionist drawing of that world is tricky.

Making sense of the thematic conclusion as an outsider feels somewhere beyond daunting. I like homework, but I am also okay with getting an “incomplete” rather than putting forth some half-baked thesis on what I think it is trying to say about a society to which I’ve barely been exposed. Still, this is what’s great about movies. They are these immersive portals, audiovisual gateways that transport us into the reality of others. Damned if I understood all or even most of it, but it was worth taking the trip.

Grade = B+

Other Critical Voices to Consider

Hanna Flint at The New Arab says “When you look upon the half-built buildings in the city do you see a property on the verge of life or an abandoned structure left for dead? That’s the metaphorical conceit at the heart of ‘Ashkal,’ a gritty, at times frustratingly elusive police procedural but with a strong social and political thrust to keep your interest.”

Shelagh Rowan-Legg at Screen Anarchy says the film “asks far more questions than it answers, befitting a kind of neo-noir that knows most mysteries will never be solved to satisfaction, too many unjustices will go unanswered, and even the cleanse of fire might never be enough.”

Hope Madden at Maddwolf says “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.”

Leave a comment