Lotfy Nathan has drawn from a deep well of sorrow and rage for this anguished drama, leading the audience to its horrible dénouement like a trail of burning petrol: the title itself means “burning” (and also, ambiguously, escaping by boat). It is inspired by the story of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian street vendor who in 2011 ignited the Arab Spring (all too literally) by setting himself on fire outside the governor’s office in the central Tunisian city of Sidi Bouzid – making it the uprising’s Ground Zero – in protest against official corruption and the police who had beaten him when he could no longer pay their bribes.
Adam Bessa plays Ali, a young guy who sells black-market petrol on a street corner, paying off hatchet-faced cops as he does so while dreaming of escaping across the Mediterranean to Europe for a better life. He is also pressured into doing more dangerous fuel smuggling at the border with Libya; Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s 2013 film GriGris also touches on Africa’s illegal gasoline trade. We see Ali listening with resentful fascination to some blowhard in a local bar, boasting about how great it’s been for him in Germany.
But just as Ali’s migrant dream looks like becoming a reality, his father dies, leaving him to look after his two younger sisters, Alyssa (Salima Maatoug) and school-age teen Sarra (Ikbal Harbi); he also discovers that his brother Skander (Khaled Brahem), who had previously been in charge of these siblings, is now leaving with his wife for a waiter job at a tourist cafe on the coast. And to top it all, Ali discovers that his father had bad debts and they are about to lose the house.
Harka shows what triggers Ali most of all is visiting Skander at the resort and sensing the white vacationers’ fear and contempt for him. He broods over the vastness of the sea: for tourists it is a luxury spectacle, for him the barrier to escape. It’s a powerful movie and Bessa’s performance is excellent.