Review: After the Fire
by David Katz
- In French director Mehdi Fikri’s feature debut, the embers cool as a family seeks justice after an episode of police brutality
After the Fire [+see also:
film profile] commences with a sense of anonymity as it gradually unveils its story: a young man, Karim, whom we’ve barely met or seen, has been pronounced dead following a short, brutal spell in police custody. The director, Mehdi Fikri, debuting his first feature in this year’s Toronto Discovery strand, wisely presumes that he’s appealing to two particular viewing constituencies: the working-class French of North African descent, whom he’s aiming to accurately portray on screen; as well as more complacent bourgeois viewers, under-sensitised to what the former might be enduring. Starting from a death evoking so many news headlines across not just France, but also other developed Western countries, the audience is given a close perch to observe the aftermath of this metaphorical “blaze”.
This alternation between specificity and dramatic shorthand is what defines this unsteady yet passionate movie, which attempts to rouse audiences and wake them up to the wrongdoings by France’s urban law enforcement and justice system, yet also sacrifices more nuanced observations for a feeling of broadness and attempts at maximum accessibility. As the film’s focal character, Karim’s older sister Malika (Camélia Jordana) takes it upon herself to scrutinise the officially provided explanation for his death. Following his arrest after a racially motivated stop-and-search, Karim apparently perished from an epileptic fit, brought on by the hard drugs already in his system. The Strasbourg banlieue where she and her immediate family live is scorching with unrest in solidarity, but the next of kin are initially conflicted about pursuing the case up the perilous legal chain.
Support successfully arrives from Slimane (Samir Guesmi, the cast’s most recognisable name), a slightly jaded community activist whose experience with similar occurrences dates back to the 1990s, and Harchi (Makita Samba, from Paris, 13th District [+see also:
film profile]), a slick lawyer ribbed by one young banlieue resident as a “Barack Obama”, who’s able to cannily leverage the issue towards the onlooking national media, allowing the case to be taken from the corrupt district attorney to an independent magistrate. All through these developments, we can feel certain conventional wheels of plotting creakily turning, however sincerely Fikri wants us to understand the typical progression of events like these, as we await a sting in the tail or a final turn of the screw, as his outlook can’t be too optimistic.
Late in the film, following another unforeseen legal outcome, the spouse of one of the siblings laments the “other Karims” who will doubtlessly come to light, speaking well of how these cases can be instrumentalised beyond the bereaved family’s trauma and privacy. Unluckily, After the Fire is guilty, in a relative sense, of something similar: it aims to be the definitive word on the corrupt policing and social disenfranchisement affecting so many immigrant communities (and finding its echo also in the George Floyd protests of the pandemic era), when this particular story needed more space to breathe, allowing all of its characters some give, movement and direction. Instead, the film they’re in often abandons them, treating them as archetypes.
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