Home » Youssef Chebbi on Making a Ghost Story Out of the Ashes of the Tunisian Revolution
News Tunis Tunisia

Youssef Chebbi on Making a Ghost Story Out of the Ashes of the Tunisian Revolution

In Youssef Chebbi’s Ashkal (currently showing in the U.S. as Ashkal: The Tunisian Investigation), two police officers from different backgrounds are assigned to investigate a series of mysterious deaths in the Gardens of Carthage, north of Tunis. The victims appear to have been burned alive even though autopsy reports reveal no evidence of violence or struggle. As they delve deeper and the findings get murkier, the younger officer, Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi), resisting pressure to wrap things up quickly from a compromised system, embarks on a journey that leads to supernatural dimensions.

Ashkal, which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last year and won the Golden Stallion of Yennenga, the top prize at Fespaco in March, is a tense, moody but gorgeously-lensed affair that functions as part police procedural and part supernatural thriller. Chebbi (Black Medusa, Babylon), who shares co-writing credits with François-Michel Allegrini, makes his solo directorial feature debut. He grounds the film with some sociopolitical commentary but allows himself the freedom to take the story in unexpected places that do not necessarily lend themselves to reason. OkayAfrica spoke with Chebbi about political systems, making the city a central character and the disillusionment that followed the Arab Spring.

What was the origin of the idea for Ashkal?

Youssef Chebbi: It started in 2018 when I first visited this neighborhood called Gardens of Carthage, where the film was shot. My mother built her house there so that is how I discovered this place that I hadn’t noticed before. It is a kind of hidden city within a city. Very quickly I had the idea, not of the story, but of the film. I imagined characters getting lost within the landscape, looking for something that they don’t really understand.

I feel like as an outsider to Tunisian culture some of the film’s impact might be lost on me. Can you talk a bit about the socio-cultural background that the film springs from?

The film takes inspiration from real-life events that happened in Tunisia. Between 2010 and 2011 we had an uprising – what we now call the Arab Spring – that started in Tunisia. A young man, Mohamed Bouazizi, a fruit seller burned himself because he was being oppressed by the police. This started the Tunisian Revolution. Eleven years after, the film is set in this neighborhood which was imagined and designed by the old regime of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

It was supposed to become this rich, modern city, the shiny face of a new Tunisia. When the revolution started, the project was abandoned and that is why we see it the way we do in the film, as an abandoned city or ghost town. And we still find a lot of things like this in the architecture of the country, some big project that was started and then abandoned midway. But now it is coming back, they are building again, and, at some point, the city that was imagined by the old regime will happen. But for me, it was interesting to film it now, as a modern ruin.

That connection between the city being sort of a ghost town and the film itself being somewhat of a ghost story is one I find interesting.

I wanted to picture Tunisia with this strange or fantastical layer because I think that, in this city, there is something very strange going on. When I was scouting for locations, you take a walk in the streets, and you can feel some of the buildings staring at or following you. There was always this feeling of being watched, of someone behind the windows looking out. I wanted to explore this and have the city as a real character, not only as background but to give it a point of view, especially with what’s happened these 11 years after the revolution. Even the self-immolation topic, you can of course read it through political and social interpretations, but it can also be something very spiritual or even mystical. When I understood that I could also work in this direction, I allowed myself to be free to imagine.

The film, particularly the ending, is open for interpretation.

The idea was never to frustrate the viewers, but Ashkal is not a film that is about giving out answers or finding the bad guy. It is really not about that. The film is more about raising questions. I think that one of the problems in our cinema from the Maghreb, and maybe some Arabic and African countries, is that sometimes cinema is chained to a kind of reality, and we feel that we have the need to explain everything socially and politically. But I think there is a lot of imagination also in these countries, and exploring this imaginary landscape does not go hand in hand with giving out clear answers.

Ashkal is also dealing with a strong subject like religion – how to engage, how and what to believe – so I don’t think it would be wise to give answers but to try to explore it from different points of view. At the end of the film, the character of Fatma reaches the status where she becomes a witness to something without fully understanding it. She has been obsessed by the need to find this face behind a mask but what she witnesses instead is a kind of miracle, perhaps a nightmare.

Police brutality and corruption within the system seem a sobering part of Tunisian life.

The police in Tunisia are a huge problem. They are everywhere and can easily target you. Whether we admit it or not, it is still a corrupt institution. But the corruption in Tunisia is not only about cops. It is also about the political systems that we had with Ben Ali, such that after the revolution, corruption became a part of everyday life, and has come to be deeply entrenched. It was important for me to show how even the most powerful systems can be extremely fragile and burn to ashes in a matter of a few weeks, and this is what happened in Tunisia.

What were your primary influences?

I like the movies of Akira Kurosawa, the Japanese director who did Ikiru and Kagemusha. A few months before the shoot my producer Farès Ladjimi asked me to watch Ikiru and when I watched it again, it is amazing how there is kind of a dialogue between these two stories. It also helped me understand that it is possible to make these kinds of films as convincing as possible and it isn’t necessarily about budget. I really like how Kurosawa deals with his characters and location and story patiently.

How has the film been received in Tunisa?

It was released in Tunisia in February; we had a few screenings around the country, and it was good… I think. There was the frustration about the meaning of the ending and questions like, are we going to do Ashkal Part 2? But seriously, I think it was interesting for the audience to see the country through a different filter with this police investigation and characters that we aren’t used to seeing in our cinema.Also, the country itself, how can we use what is already there but try to make something different with it? We explore landscapes that we live in and exist with but often fail to notice. With Ashkal we see that it is possible to use what is surrounding you to make these kind of sci-fi or speculative thrillers even when you don’t have huge budgets. I think that it was appreciated.