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London Film Festival 2022, dispatch #3
In his third dispatch from this year’s London Film Festival, Slarek is intrigued and a initially a little bamboozled by Tunisian allegorical police procedural, ASHKAL, and winces his way through fascinating, blackly comic but deeply discomforting Norwegian drama, SICK OF MYSELF.

In a district of Tunis known as the Gardens of Carthage, two police detectives – seasoned male cop Batal (Mohamed Houcine Grayaa) and his younger female partner Fatma (Fatma Oussaifi) – are called in to investigate a burnt corpse discovered in one of the region’s half-completed construction project buildings. The body is identified as that of a site watchman, but local governor Bouhlel Jilani (Nabil Trabelsi), a committed supporter of the building developments, dismisses the man’s death as suicide. This view is supported by the no-nonsense coroner, but something doesn’t sit quite right with Fatma and, to a lesser degree, Batal. None of the man’s co-workers believes he would commit suicide, and if he did want to take his own life, why go somewhere private and self-immolate, a particularly painful death that has very specific political connotations for this country? Fatma decides to investigate further, and finds evidence that a young woman was found burnt to death earlier the same week in the grounds of the development in which the watchman died. This fatality was effectively hushed up by the belligerent Bouhlel, who curtly claims that the woman was the victim of a rape by two drunken workers, who burned the body to disguise their crime and are now on the run. It’s a claim that cuts no ice with Batal, as the coroner’s report confirmed that the body showed no signs of rape or assault. What could the link between these two unexplained cases of seemingly willing self-immolation?

Ashkal is one of those films where a little knowledge of the politics and history of the region goes a long way, and I’m saying that as someone who approached the film without that requisite information. As a result, I quickly found myself a little at sea and asking questions that I began to suspect that the filmmakers were presuming I already knew the answers to. The bare essentials are provided by an opening caption, but a quick bit of research after I’d finished watching the film really helped to clarify some aspects of the story. The resolutely minimalist storytelling style of first-time solo feature director Youssef Chebbi (he previously collaborated with a filmmaker named Ismaël on the 2021 Black Medusa) certainly gives little away. It’s an approach I found myself compelled by even as struggled to fully comprehend the meaning behind some of the things said and done by the characters. Initially, for instance, I mistook Bouhlel’s dislike of Fatma to be a sign of his contempt for the very idea of being questioned by a woman in a position of legal authority, a potentially confrontational prejudice that her partner seems overly keen to protect her from. Only later did it click – thanks to brief comments made by Bouhlel and Batal and my post-film research – that the root of this hostility lies in the fact that Fatma’s father is a member of a commission investigating the activities of corrupt men of power like Bouhlel (and indeed, “just following orders” policemen like Batal) when the country was under the oppressive rule of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Significantly for this story, that rule was brought to an end in 2010 when a public act of self-immolation by market trader Mohamed Bouazizi sparked a wave of protests that gave rise to the Tunisian Revolution, which in turn kickstarted the Arab Spring.

Batal suggests to Fatma that he talk to Bouhlel alone.

A dark pall hangs over the entire investigation, thanks in no small part to a supremely sinister score by Thomas Kuratli, all low frequency rumbles, single-note drones and rising chords that infuse every location with a sense of impending threat. It’s a well-worn critical trope to suggest that the location is as much a character in the film as the human cast, but it really is the case here, with the towering, half-completed concrete residential blocks looming over the investigation like giant faceless and deactivated automatons. Few watching will be surprised that the investigation later expands to include further victims, though when this becomes personal for one of the investigators, we’re left to ponder over whether the victim was deliberately targeted or a casualty of unfortunate chance. There is certainly a suspicion from an early stage that the deaths have a political component, and Fatma’s conviction that the victims were murdered is seemingly confirmed when she investigates one of the tower blocks by night (rather you than me, thanks) and briefly sees that man she believes is the killer. We don’t see his face, but his police composite picture makes him seem almost alien in appearance.

This proves to be the first small hint of the risky directional switch that the film will later take, one seemingly confirmed when Fatma and Batal are given just 15 minutes to interrogate the two men accused of raping and murdering the first victim. One of them defiantly refutes the charges brought against them and claims that far from assaulting the woman, he tried to help her by smothering the fire that killed her. He also confirms Fatma’s suspicion that someone else was present, a man whose face he could not see but whom, he suggestively claims, “gave her fire.” I am aware that I was being presented with an English subtitle translation of the Arabic original here, but since this very specific choice of words is later discussed by Fatma and Batal, I have to presume it is accurate, and from the moment I heard this, I began to suspect that what had begun as a police procedural was taking its first steps into the realms of supernatural horror. Whether that is the case is not for me to say here, but from this point on events do invite a more allegorical meaning, culminating in a finale that only really makes sense if viewed and interpreted that way. Even then, I can imagine some discussion and disagreement on what director Chebbi is trying to tell us about Tunisian society, masculinity, gender roles, corruption, politics, religion, or the destructive nature of corporate capitalism in general. Frankly, I’m keen to see the film again, this time fully armed with the research I’ve since been able to do since, and fired up with questions and notions that the film has hauntingly planted in my head.


The suggestively titled Sick of Myself, the second feature from Norwegian director Kristoffer Borgli, lays its thematic cards on the table in its opening minutes. A young woman named Signe (The Burning Sea’s Kristine Kujath Thorp) is dining in an upmarket restaurant with her boyfriend Thomas (newcomer Eirik Sæther), a rising star in the design world. To celebrate what he claims is Signe’s birthday, Thomas orders a $28,000 bottle of wine, then tells Signe to pretend to be receiving a phone call and to step outside to take it. It’s clear even at this point that the two are planning to do a runner with the wine, and while they are obviously in cahoots, Signe ultimately agrees to go through with it only if she gets to tell their friends that it was she who took the bottle, a condition that Thomas cheerfully agrees to. Signe thus steps outside with her phone and Thomas runs off down the street with the wine, but at a party with friends later, Thomas takes full credit for pulling off this amusing wheeze. Signe watches his boast from across the room, clearly pissed off at him for stealing a moment that he promised to her.

The following day, Signe is startled when a woman stumbles into the bakery in which she works, bleeding profusely and begging for help after being badly bitten by a dog. Signe catches her as she falls and then breathlessly attempts to stop the bleeding with a tea towel. By the time the emergency services arrive, Signe is shaken and covered in the woman’s blood, but quickly realises that she has become the centre of attention as a result. She elects to walk home without first changing her clothes, and draws looks and concerned comments from passers-by, attention in which she quietly seems to bask. Once indoors, she approaches Thomas, but he’s too wrapped up in ordering Chinese food online to pay her any heed, despite her gently clearing her throat a couple of times. When he does finally see her, he is unsurprisingly alarmed and asks if she has been injured, and despite knowing full well that she is unharmed, Signe acts all distressed and claims not to be sure. She dines out on this story for some time, to the point where they are eating out with friends two weeks later and Thomas has to interrupt her in order to discuss his upcoming exhibition at the Cotard Gallery. Clearly put out that the conversation is no longer revolving around her, Signe subtly dumps on the importance of what we can presume is a big break for Thomas, and at the banquet held to celebrate the show itself, she falsely claims a nut allergy, then feigns passing out during his speech, instantly refocussing the attention of the entire room onto her.

Signe pops another pill in the hope of triggering an attention-grabbing rash.

From an early stage, Signe comes across as insecure and resentful of her admittedly self-absorbed boyfriend’s success, but her attention-seeking is elevated to a whole new level when she reads about the damaging side-effects of a banned Russian anti-anxiety drug named Lidexol,* which has been shown to cause unsightly skin rashes. Where most would see that as a sound reason to avoid the drug at all costs, it inspires Signe to reconnect with a socially awkward drug dealer from her past named Stian (Steinar Klouman Hallert), whom she previously distanced herself from after he (apparently mistakenly) sent her a picture of himself attempting to suck his own dick. “I can reach it, actually” he tells her in a shy boast, “It’s just hard to snap a photo at the same time.” Signe convinces him to procure a supply of Lidexol for her and starts taking it, clearly hoping to trigger a skin rash that will prompt Thomas to focus less on his art and more on her wellbeing, and once again make her the topic of conversation with their friends. When a rash appears but fails to trigger the hoped-for level of response, she swallows a whole bottle of the pills, and the effects are far more dramatic, disorientating her and seriously scarring and swelling her face, a situation that she subsequently milks for every ounce of attention and notoriety that she can.

Sick of Me is a blackly comic drama with the emphasis on the black, evolving into a critique of how social media has elevated narcissism into a way of life for so many and a highly profitable one for those who know best how to market and exploit it. It questions just how far people will go to achieve the sort of notoriety that social media platforms seem to encourage and reward, and how it potentially breeds insecurity and ultimately vacuous competitiveness in those who crave the attention that others seem more easily able to attract. In this respect, the film pulls no punches, and despite some moments of nicely pitched dark humour and Signe’s Billy Liar-like daydreaming of more positive outcomes for her self-destructive actions, the film proves to be something of a tough watch. Maybe it’s just me, but I found Signe’s insecure attention-seeking irritating from the off, and the more she lied and more extreme the measures she took to be the centre of attention, the more exasperated with her I became. Maybe this says as much about me as it does about the character, who knows? That said, Thomas is no paragon of empathic virtue either, and just when you think that he is the less self-absorbed of the two, he’ll do something thoughtlessly selfish to remind you why he and Signe seem to be constantly in competition with each other.

Later, when things really start to deteriorate for Signe, the comedy takes a fast flight out of Norway in search of somewhere brighter, and the experience for me became less about cringing at the behaviour of a sometimes insufferable individual, and more about watching that individual suffer. Others will disagree, but for me this proved a frequently gruelling experience, one I’ll nonetheless happily admit to admiring for its confident direction, the no-holds-barred relentlessness of its messaging, the impressive performances, and some of the most grimly realistic makeup I’ve seen all year. And despite all I've said, there were moments when I did laugh out loud, if occasionally in disbelief at the things that Signe was prepared to say or do. But would I want to watch it again? Probably, yes, but given dark and depressing times in which we currently live, maybe not for a while.


* Unsurprisingly, this medication was invented for the film, but rather wittily the filmmakers have created a web page for the drug at which attacks the film for misrepresenting the drug and advises you to avoid seeing it.

London Film Festival 2022 logo
London Film Festival dispatch #3

Ashkal poster
France | Tunisia | Qatar 2022
92 mins
directed by
Youssef Chebbi
produced by
Farès Ladjimi
written by
François-Michel Allegrini
Youssef Chebbi
Hazem Berrabah
Valentin Féron
Thomas Kuratli
Fatma Oussaifi
Mohamed Houcine Grayaa
Rami Harrabi
Hichem Riahi
Nabil Trabelsi
Bahri Rahali

Sick of Myself Norwegian poster
Sick of Myself
[Syk pike]
Norway | Sweden 2022
95 mins
directed by
Kristoffer Borgli
produced by
Dyveke Bjørkly Graver
Andrea Berentsen Ottmar
written by
Kristoffer Borgli
Benjamin Loeb
Kristoffer Borgli
production design
Henrik Svensson
Kristine Kujath Thorp
Eirik Sæther
Fanny Vaager
Sarah Francesca Brænne
Fredrik Stenberg Ditlev-Simonsen
Steinar Klouman Hallert
Andrea Bræin Hovig
Henrik Mestad
Anders Danielsen Lie

review posted
11 October 2022

See all of Slarek's reviews