DUBAI: “Your duty as an artist is to be the voice of people who don’t have a voice,” says French-Tunisian actor Adam Bessa. “The reality of the world is pretty simple. You have money, you exist. You don’t have money, you don’t exist.”
Bessa is discussing “Harka,” director Lotfy Nathan’s powerful narrative debut. It’s a film that took both an emotional and physical toll on Bessa, who lived with gasoline smugglers on the border with Libya and isolated himself from the outside world in preparation for his role as an impoverished Tunisian street-seller.
“You have to try to show the beauty, the importance, the struggle,” he adds. “Maybe the film is a comedy, so you show how funny people are. Maybe it’s a drama, so you show the reality of people’s lives. It’s just your duty to be the voice of those who don’t have one.”
Bessa’s extraordinary performance in “Harka,” which had its Middle East and North Africa premiere at the RSIFF, has attracted widespread acclaim. In May he won the best performance prize at Cannes’ Un Certain Regard (shared with Vicky Krieps for “Corsage”), and last month picked up the Red Sea Competition Best Actor award in Jeddah.
Working closely with Nathan, who won the Red Sea Competition Best Director accolade, Bessa spent the best part of four months preparing for the role of Ali, a young man who sells black market gasoline on the streets of Sidi Bouzid. When his father dies, Ali not only finds himself burdened with his father’s debts, he is also responsible for the wellbeing of his two sisters. Risking his life to buy gasoline on the border with Libya in a bid to make ends meet, he is nevertheless forced to turn over most of his earnings in extortion payments to the police.
“We knew we had to take time to prepare, so we talked about the script and the character and then I went to Tunisia for maybe three weeks,” says Bessa, who was born in Paris to Tunisian parents. “I isolated myself and started to put myself in character. Then I spent two weeks on location with the smugglers. I spent time with them, went to Libya, really lived with them and then during the shoot I never stopped being Ali, because for me it was very hard to disconnect. He’s so special and so complex and he vibrates on something very special, so, for me, that was the way it had to be done.”
Inspired by the true story of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation triggered Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution and the wider Arab Spring, the film doesn’t offer any answers and certainly doesn’t provide any balm. Ali’s existence is harsh and upsetting, although for much of the film Bessa’s performance is remarkably restrained. He is often silent, or converses with only the minimal use of words. When we first meet Ali, he is siphoning petrol from one can to another and living a solitary existence in an abandoned construction site.
Only Bessa’s face hints at the character’s inner desperation. When Ali does reach breaking point much later in the film, it’s a powerful and uncomfortable scene to watch. Bessa’s previously contained anger explodes with a level of ferocity that is disquieting.
“Mentally, it was tough,” admits Bessa. “You put yourself out there and wherever curiosity takes you, you go. And characters like Ali, they live with you forever. Because it’s upsetting. Maybe it’s upsetting because that’s how the world works. Every day the things that happen to Ali are happening somewhere and it’s a burden for every one of us to admit it. Because as much as we live our lives, we’re all connected. So it’s hard to accept and it’s heartbreaking and sometimes it’s depressing. But it is the truth.”
A self-taught actor, Bessa was the film’s only representative at the Red Sea International Film Festival, undertaking interviews with patience and humility and attending the movie’s two screenings. He was also ranked among Screen Daily’s Arab Stars of Tomorrow, alongside the likes of Moroccan writer and director Sofia Alaoui and Lebanon’s Dania Bdeir.
Bessa’s success is all the more remarkable when you consider his backstory. He received his acting break in Algerian director Sofia Djama’s “Les Bienheureux” while working as a fishermen in the south of France.
“It’s not that easy, you know,” he says. “I wanted to be a football player, it didn’t work. I studied law, I didn’t like it. Then I started working. I was passionate about cinema and tried to get into the business, but it was very complicated, so I stopped trying and went to work as a real estate agent. You make a living for yourself and then all of a sudden you get an opportunity. For me, that opportunity was Sofia Djama’s film.”
A friend of Bessa’s told him there was a casting call for “Les Bienheureux,” so he sent off a tape and eventually met the director in Paris. He hasn’t looked back since.
“For most people there’s a certain path. But so many stories don’t follow a set path. If you’re passionate about something and you don’t really listen to what everybody tells you to do and you just follow what you want to do, your road becomes weird and narrow and people are like, ‘Oh, what a journey’. But I think everybody would have a weird journey if they just followed their heart. If you follow what you like and what is inspiring to you, then your road becomes something special.”
He went on to star in the Matthew Michael Carnahan-directed “Mosul,” which followed an Iraqi police unit during the battle to liberate the city from ISIS, and will soon reprise his role as Yaz Kahn in Netflix’s “Extraction 2” alongside Chris Hemsworth. He is also set to star in Tunisian-Canadian film director Meryam Joobeur’s “Motherhood,” which is due for release this year.
“The clear idea is always to follow my instinct,” says Bessa of the directors he works with. “That’s how I went through life, how I grew up and why I’m where I am now. I follow my instincts. Good story, good director, whatever the name is. I don’t go by names, I don’t go by hype, I go by feeling. If the people inspire me then I’ll work with them. If I feel like we can do something great together, then I’ll do it. If I don’t feel it, then I don’t do it, you know? Even if you fail, when you chose something yourself it doesn’t feel like a failure, it just feels like your life. When you listen to others and you fail, you have regrets, and I hate regrets.”
What’s next? More films, for sure. But maybe directing one day?
“Absolutely, why not?” he replies. “Not now, but maybe in the future. It’s a question of stories. It’s not a question of doing things because you’ve got to tick boxes. Maybe I’ll create a brand, maybe I’ll do something else. Maybe I’ll edit books. I don’t know what I’ll do. It’s what inspires me. That’s how I work. I hear stories, I hear people, so if I have an idea or if I meet someone who pitches me a story that I love and I’m comfortable, I’ll do it. It’s a question of people and the right time, the right moment — doing the right thing.”