After The Fire: Nothing is black and white after seeing red

After The Fire
4 min read
16 September, 2023

The world premiere of After the Fire at the 2023 Toronto Film Festival couldn't be more timely. Just over two months ago, on 27 June 2023, 17-year-old Nahel Merzouk was killed by a police officer and now, in Mehdi Fikri's powerful feature debut, similar politics of French police brutality play out.

Yet this is a story grounded in the emotional ordeal of those left behind as they fight for justice in the face of corrupt bureaucracy.

France is certainly no stranger to the subject of revolution, both in life and art and in recent years, filmmakers have served up the likes of Athena and Les Misérables to grapple with police violence against marginalised, working-class communities.

Yet both these incendiary films have been told through a predominantly masculine perspective. After The Fire instead offers a feminine point of entry via the eldest daughter of a French-Arab family reeling from the death of their brother in police custody.

"Nothing is black and white and Fekri captures the political, racial and familial nuances with the grounded, naturalistic direction that allows these tensions to bubble"

Malika El Yadari, (played by French-Algerian pop singer Camélia Jordana) is a newish mother who works with her husband on a market stall. From a young age, she bore the responsibility for her siblings because of a bonding ritual carried out by her mother. "You belong to your family now," she tells young Malika after slicing three lines onto her skin with a razor to represent her kin: Driss, Karim and Nour.

But Malika has since become estranged from her youngest brother Karim (and influenced her family to do the same) because of his historic antisocial and criminal behaviour.

Her walls of frustrated indifference are soon shattered by the news that her 25-year-old brother has died during a confrontation with police. Law enforcement claims it was due to a fatal epileptic fit but the family, and the community, know better.

Thus begins the fight for justice with Fikri's years of working as an investigative journalist, zoning in on the cross-section between police brutality, working-class neighbourhoods and social movements, bringing grounded truth and attention to detail to Malika's struggle.

Chinonye Chukwu's Till springs to mind when watching Malika's reluctant heroine evolve from fear to ferocity. Like Mamie Till-Mobley, whose son Emmett was brutally lynched by white supremacists in Money, Mississippi, in 1955, for whistling at a white woman, Malika is emboldened by seasoned activists to take on the establishment.

There's a similar scene at a coroner's that also evokes pain and sadness as Malika releases photographs of Karim's battered body that will prove his death was violently inflicted by officers.

Yet the moment of his attack is never shown. Fikri plays the disturbing audio, from the moment Karim is detained, over images of the same empty concrete street.

It's a devastatingly haunting scene in a film that aptly manages to balance light and dark despite the harrowing subject. Fekri represents a cross-section of the community, from Karim's frustrated best friend taking part in riots to a somewhat jaded activist tussling with a sharp-suited lawyer over the ethics and methods to achieve social justice.

Nothing is black and white and Fekri captures the political, racial and familial nuances with the grounded, naturalistic direction that allows these tensions to bubble.

Jordana is an assured casting choice who brings determined conviction to Malika while maintaining a sense of deep introspection. There's something in her searching eyes that manage to speak so much more about how she's feeling than words and her sibling chemistry with Driss and Nour is potent.

The way they fight, tease and sing with each other feels real and authentic. They carry the viewers on an emotional journey that's hard not to be swept up in, even when the more mundane moments of legal exposition slow the pace.


Some understated artistic flourishes with the cinematography reinforces the melancholy mood. In one long shot, Malika navigates the stairwells, corridors and rooms in the family apartment to meet her siblings on a balcony bathed in blue light.

Later we see a similar long take of Malika surrounded by friends, family and neighbours showing solidarity. This sort of assured, fluid camerawork emphasises just how embedded this family is in their community and vice versa.

In After the Fire, there's no Hollywood gloss to tie things up neatly, rather a matter-of-fact finish that compassionately reinforces cinema's emphatic ability to advocate for social justice.

Hanna Flint is a film and TV critic, writer and author of Strong Female Character with bylines at Empire, Time Out, Elle, Town & Country, the Guardian, BBC Culture and IGN

Follow her here: @HannaFlint