Moving from fact to fiction

Lotfy Nathan on 'shedding the skin of accuracy' for stronger storytelling in Harka

by Amber Wilkinson

Lotfy Nathan's Tunisian-set drama Harka arrives in cinemas this week after a strong festival run since last year's Cannes and with a raft of awards under its belt. Its star Adam Bessa was named best actor in the French festival's Un Certain Regard section for an intense central performance, that has gone on to win additional accolades elsewhere. He plays Ali - a character inspired by the real life tragedy of Mohamed Bouazizi - who sells illegal gasoline to make ends meet. Nathan's tale follows Ali as he finds himself trying to take care of his younger sisters Alyssa (Salima Maatoug) and Sarra (Ikbal Harbi) following the death of his father while facing an increasing amount of social injustice. We caught up with Nathan to talk about the inspiration for the film and the challenges and freedoms of moving from documentary to fiction features.

Let's start bujust by talking about this framing device that you've used for the story, this miracle lake that, in fact, is poisonous. Can you tell me a bit about the idea and why you decied to use a child's voice as a sort of narrator, which is quite unusual, given the content of the film?

Lotfy Nathan: I was really struck by that story about the lake that appeared in, in the middle of nowhere, there in the desert. I'd heard that a few times while I was traveling around Tunisia, researching the story, and what was really interesting to me, is the false promise. This build up of, of something hopeful and exciting and then realising that it's fraught and kind of toxic. I just thought that that was a nice thing for for Alyssa to muse on. So the whole narration thing was done in collaboration with Salima, the young girl who plays the younger sister.

Lotfy Nathan on his star Adam Bessa as Ali in Harka: 'His audition was great, he was so even-keeled, not really embellishing anything and he was so hungry to really immerse himself and get entrenched in the role'
Lotfy Nathan on his star Adam Bessa as Ali in Harka: 'His audition was great, he was so even-keeled, not really embellishing anything and he was so hungry to really immerse himself and get entrenched in the role' Photo: Studio Soho Distribution

I didn't initially plan to have a voiceover. But when we were shooting the film, I was so taken by her point of view, when she was just literally looking at her brother. I got really fixated on that, and we'd make sure to always get her studying him as he moves around the room and that's when I thought, okay, it could really be through her perspective and it ended up being a really useful counterpoint to Ali's character in the film, which is kind of stoic and what you'd call the strong silent type.

I know what drove you to make the film was the real life tragedy of Mohamed Bouazizi. Is it a challenge to make a fiction film with that kind of bedrock, because you want to retain the truth - perhaps, especially because you have a background as a documentarian - but also you want to expand on it, perhaps, and go your own way.

LN: That was a big lesson for me. The difference between documentary and scripted things is you have to jettison a lot of those things, accuracy, for the sake of the story, because there's another way to convey the truth and a feeling of authenticity without it having to be accurate. There's just so many tricks, practically speaking, the whole thing is a stage and you can really use that to your advantage. The more I did that, the more I enjoyed the film. So, at a certain point, I had to just shed that skin of wanting to tell the accurate story. I had a chip on my shoulder about doing that, because I'm an outsider telling this story that is very sensitive to the national identity of that country. But if you're going to make film as a pushover, and to passively, it's going to be bad.

It struck me that it was probably quite freeing for you in a way because, obviously, when you're a documentarian, you absolutely have to follow the story and you're constantly being guided by what's in front of you but as a fiction feature maker, it's actually the opposite. You're able to put people where you want them to be and all of that and there’s a freedom to that.

Lotfy Nathan: 'I wanted to cast the whole thing in that Italian neo-realist tradition, but then it would have just been insane with 24 days to shoot the film'
Lotfy Nathan: 'I wanted to cast the whole thing in that Italian neo-realist tradition, but then it would have just been insane with 24 days to shoot the film'
LN: Yes, at a certain point, I was like, “This is my character and I'm going to put some of myself in him and see what I want to see in the story". Even him being more hard boiled, because the way that Bouzazi was always talked, people would always say, “Oh, he was a super nice guy. And he was misunderstood. And it's tragic, and that he sold fruit and vegetables”. I like a character in this situation who is not quite as sympathetic for those reasons, that he's not asking the audience for sympathy. It's sort of a Taxi Driver character to me. He’s someone whose psychology reflects the times that he's living in. So Ali is this character who's like a stray dog, and is used to living that way, doesn't expect anything from anybody, he has his guard up, because he's used to being kicked around.

The only thing keeping him alive is that he wants to get out of there and he's planning to get out of there, like a lot of people. Then it became interesting also, to me, to make the story about people who remain, because the time that it took to make the film, it could no longer just be about Bouazizi and a pre-revolution story. We had this hindsight and this perspective. There was the migrant crisis, there was the radicalisation of many people in the region as well. And I wanted to address that stuff in the character. Even changing his profession from selling fruit and vegetables to gasoline, which was a tough sell for all of the many partners we had on the film.

There's almost an unexpected calm to a lot of what is going on. You might call it resignation, you might call it calm. but that sense that no matter what's happening to Ali, the rest of the world is just keeping on going right until the end.

LN: Yes, and it's not meant to be a condemnation, it's more my feeling is that people are very desensitised at this point to these acts and to these atrocities and disillusioned. You know, it's an existential crisis that everybody's having. There are these personal crusades, and somebody's that desperate but we've just got used to it.

It's like the bird in the cage, isn't it? It only knows the cage so that’s its environment. It's a bit like that for Ali. In a sense. He's in the cage, but he just doesn't see the cage because he's always been there.

LN: Exactly. I love stories that deal with that, one of my favorite films is One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. I think it's very similar that way, you know, just this, these these traps we put ourselves in, or that we find ourselves in.

I wondered whether in those scenes where you sort of go to the tourist resort, if some of you put some of yourself in there to a degree because you are an outsider, you're coming to this country to make this film. And we see that sort of disconnect between the people who are living there all the time and the outsider.

Ikbal Harbi as Sarra and Salima Maatoug as Alyssa in Harka. Lotfy Nathan on Alyssa: 'Her perspective and it ended up being a really useful counterpoint to Ali's character in the film, which is kind of stoic and what you'd call the strong silent type'
Ikbal Harbi as Sarra and Salima Maatoug as Alyssa in Harka. Lotfy Nathan on Alyssa: 'Her perspective and it ended up being a really useful counterpoint to Ali's character in the film, which is kind of stoic and what you'd call the strong silent type' Photo: Studio Soho Distribution
LN: I really wanted to have that sequence in there, because first of all, it's like him visiting this other planet, you know, this mirage, ironically within his own country, but it's so far away. And then also for the Western audience that I knew would be watching the film, to have this moment of our perspective of these two locals having a dispute, which is Ali and his brother, I thought it would be interesting, just for a moment, to kind of flip the perspective.

I’d like to touch on the casting of the film a little bit. Obviously, Adam Bessa is terrific in the central role, but you cast non-professionals in the other roles.

LN: It was almost entirely non-professionals. The homeless guy outside of the governor's building is actually a very prominent actor in Tunisia (Jamel Madani). He's amazing. And so he agreed to do this little cameo in the film. It's so cool to watch him do something with such a tiny role, just ad libbing. But by and large, it was all non-professionals. I wanted to cast the whole thing in that Italian neo-realist tradition, but then it would have just been insane with 24 days to shoot the film. And the producer found Adam. His audition was great, he was so even-keeled, not really embellishing anything and he was so hungry to really immerse himself and get entrenched in the role. And he took it on his shoulders.

Is it right that you're making a horror movie next?

LN: Yes. That's what's on the docket. It's a biblical horror that I adapted from an apocryphal gospel - I kind of explained them as like fanfiction of the Bible, written contemporaneously with the New Testament. I came across one that has this missing account of Jesus' childhood, his adolescence, which is missing in the New Testament. So I adapted that, and just by nature of the story - and I would say the Bible, actually, as a whole - it’s a horror film. So we're approaching it in a photorealistic way. We’re planning to shoot in Jordan at the moment but it's going to be in English. It's a genre film, breaking away a bit from the parameters I had with Harka.

  • Harka will be released in UK cinemas by Studio Soho Distribution on Friday, May 5
  • Read what Adam Bessa told us about his method and digging into complexity

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