Lotfy Nathan's 'Harka' and the burden of normalcy in post-revolution Tunisia

In Conversation with ‘Harka’ Director, Lotfy Nathan
5 min read
05 May, 2023

Taking a departure from his previous documentary work, Lotfy Nathan knew that bringing Harka to life would be a challenge.

But now, over 3 years have passed since he spent a gruelling 24-days filming in Tunisia, wanting to ensure he remained true to the roots of the Arab Spring revolution by filming on the grounds where it first began, and it’s safe to say it was worth it.

Since its release in 2022, Harka has gone on to be nominated for and win several prestigious accolades, including a Best First Film nomination for director and producer, Lotfy Nathan at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival.

"This film is a reminder of the powerful role of art and media in telling stories of historical events and contributing to societies understanding and discourse of social issues"

Harka follows the journey of Ali Hamdi (played by Adam Bessa), a working-class Tunisian citizen who is barely making a living as it is, when he is unexpectedly forced to also take charge of his younger sisters after the sudden death of their father.

Overwhelmed by the burden of reality, we still Ali gripple with his attempts to provide for his family whilst the world around him appears to seemingly fall apart.

Lotfy’s inspiration for Ali’s character came from Mohammed Bouazizi, the Tunisian fruit vendor whose self-immolation was the catalyst for the revolution in Tunisia: “Bouazizi to me was really interesting because he completely unknowing and unwittingly became the catalyst to this revolution. He was an antihero who wasn’t necessarily politically charged, but Ali’s inspiration came from when emotional human experience meets political activism, which is when it’s at its most intense.”

Whilst the process behind Harka was a little outside his usual zone of familiarity, Lotfy was able to use the experience he gained from his several years as a documentary maker to his advantage in the casting process: “Casting was the thing I had a knack for. I did it in the way that I did my first documentary film where I choose who was going to be my focus and my subject and this sort of created the bed for Adam.”

Adam Bessa, who went on to receive the Un Certain Regard Award for Best Performance at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival, was “a miracle” find for Lotfy after weeks of searching. “Initially, because of my documentary background, I wanted to use a non-professional actor and go down the neo-realist route by only using locals. I couldn’t fathom us using someone from outside of the country," Lotfy told The New Arab, “but looking back now, I’m really glad we did go with an actor because we only had 24 days to shoot the film. And with the amount of work and diligence you have to be, we needed someone really professional.”

In Conversation with ‘Harka’ Director, Lotfy Nathan
Ali's story encourages us to empathise with humanity's struggle to survive [photo credit: Lotfy Nathan/Sophie Dulac Distribution]

In an interview with Deadline, Bessa discusses how he assimilated into the role, by first spending 3 weeks alone in a hotel room to ‘encapsulate what being a loner felt like,’ and then going on to spend time with smugglers in Libya.

For Lotfy especially, Adam was able to break down some pre-conceived notions of what working with a trained actor could be like: “Within a few days he kind of lowered his guard. We both had to do that for each other and because of that, there was an amazing amount of trust. I saw this transference of all the burden that I had felt when I was writing the script and trying to envision that character. I saw him take all that on his shoulders during production and that was an incredible experience,” Lotfy told us about working with Bessa.

Bessa wasn’t the only cast member who had an impact on Nathan. Throughout Harka we hear narration by the character of Ali’s younger sister, Alyssa (played by Salima Maatoug). “Initially the character was supposed to be a boy and the casting people bought in this young girl. It must have been a miscommunication or a mistake, but she was just so interesting. That’s when it dawned on me that she could really be it and it could be two young sisters instead.”

Harka is an honest depiction of the reality many faced prior to, as well as after the revolution. Lotfy’s film makes for a gritty and at times, uncomfortable watch, but is a reminder of how society failed the thousands who found themselves in a similar position to Ali.

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This film is a reminder of the powerful role of art and media in telling stories of historical events and contributing to societies understanding and discourse of social issues.

Lotfy agrees, but only when it’s done in the right circumstances: "You have to represent the place that you are depicting, but I don’t think that this should necessarily be the mandate. I think all kinds of people can have empathy and that the outsider view is actually really important to art. We need to try not to abandon that.”

Sarah Harris is a freelance journalist with an interest in health/racial inequalities, chronic illness and gender disparities within ethnic minority cultures.

Follow her on Twitter: @sarahthejourno