Harka actor Adam Bessa on the 'madness' of playing a Tunisian gas smuggler

The French-Tunisian won Best Actor at the Red Sea International Film Festival for his performance as a street vendor

To prepare for his part in Harka, Adam Bessa immersed himself in the world of gas smuggling in Tunisia. Photo: Red Sea International Film Festival
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Mirroring the self-immolation of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi in 2010, the film Harka tells an all-too-common story of bitter isolation and hopelessness. The plot follows Ali, a young Tunisian selling contraband gas on the black market, whose dreams of a better life come crashing down following the death of his father.

Adam Bessa’s depiction of Ali, a character he says will never leave him, has made him a favourite at the festival circuit this year. When Harka had its premiere at Cannes Film Festival this year, it earned Bessa the Un Certain Regard Award for Best Performance. At the Red Sea International Film Festival earlier this month, Bessa was awarded the Silver Yusr Award for Best Actor, while Lotfy Nathan won the Silver Yusr for Best Director.

Bouazizi set himself on fire in in Sidi Bouzid, protesting many of the conditions depicted in Harka — an event widely seen as the start of the Tunisian Revolution and the Arab uprisings.

To prepare for the part, the French-Tunisian Bessa, aged 30, had to isolate an apartment in Tunis for three weeks and nurse a loneliness that became “a form of schizophrenia".

However, this form of loneliness was quite unlike the isolation we’ve come to associate with the term "post-pandemic". Bessa took on a life he knew many downtrodden young men in Tunisia were enduring. He spent his nights drinking alone and his days wandering the blistering streets with a hangover, in much the same way Ali does in the film while selling contraband gas — a source of income that barely gets him by.

“I told the director that I needed a few weeks by myself,” Bessa says. “We worked a lot on the scenario, but I just needed to get everything. I had to find the way Ali walks. How he simply walks across the street, sits down someplace, orders a coffee.

“I was wondering, reading the script, what it would be like to be hungover at 50°C, while you have to stand in the sun. You see how people around live and how things are. The contrasts must be hell in your head.”

After days of cycling through drunken nights and subsequent mornings, walking dehydrated and without direction down the streets of Tunis, Bessa began experiencing several side effects. His head constantly hurt and his vision began to fork.

“You start looking at things differently,” he says. “Your gaze starts to change and then after a week, you really feel the need to talk. It hurts for a week and then the need disappears. But something else appears. You start talking to yourself. You ask the questions, and you make the answers. Dialogue forms naturally.”

These seething conversations loom in Harka through Ali’s silence. The film is ensconced in his perspective, and as his experiences become more taxing, and the society and system in which he is struggling to survive in persistently marginalises and deadlocks his opportunities.

“With alcohol and tiredness, a form of schizophrenia starts to appear,” he says. “Madness is always there, and by the end, it’s growing.”

Adam Bessa won the Silver Yusr award for Best Actor at the Red Sea International Film Festival this year. Photo: Getty Images

Bessa’s performance is charged by what he refrains from showing. Ali meets every pushback in his life with a defeated resolve, from his father’s death and being beaten by the police to realising he is unable to care for his younger sisters.

It is a subdued and nuanced performance that reaches its peak the moment Ali’s sanity breaks as he sees the immutability of the status quo. It is the film’s electric climax, which viscerally disintegrates the audience-performer barrier. The film tenses and paces quicker from this point on, and by the end of it, the hell that Bessa imagined manifests.

The film’s ending draws obvious connections with the story of Bouazizi. While Ali’s story parallels Bouazizi’s in many ways, Bessa says Harka isn’t specifically about Bouazizi, but Ali, and the many iterations of him that exist around the world.

Now more than a year since living and depicting Ali, Adam Bessa says he can still feel the character within him. Photo: Red Sea International Film Festival

After his excursion of solitude, Bessa followed Ali’s experiences by shadowing smugglers who brought in contraband gas into Tunisia through Libya. Bessa was put in touch with the group through Nathan, who had spent the past four years in Tunisia, working on the script and immersing himself in its world.

“I didn’t want to lie to them, so I told them I was an actor. They’re really smart and very dangerous,” he says. “We were at a cross between Algeria and Libya, and it was a different vibe from Tunis. They started trusting me as we spent more time together. They showed me the gasoline. They’re a bit like pirates, a bit mad in a way, very intense.”

After this unofficial vetting process, Bessa was finally offered to ride along on a smuggling operation.

“We went to Libya,” he says. “They were driving 180 kilometres an hour on a dirt road, lights out at night. They’re completely crazy. When they see police, they flip the finger and laugh. They’re super intense. They don’t care about the law.

"They don’t care about anything. You know, during the pandemic, they brought the respirators into Tunis. They were mocking the government in a way, saying we managed to bring 400 machines and you didn’t. So, you know, people love them.”

Now more than a year since living and depicting Ali, Bessa says he can still feel the character within him. “Characters like that, they live with you for life,” he says. “You’ll never get rid of him because he is a part of you. There are a lot of Alis in the world."

Bessa has recently finished filming Extraction 2, reprising the role of Yaz Khan opposite Chris Hemsworth’s Tyler Rake. The experience of working on a Hollywood blockbuster has been different.

“It’s lighter,” he says. “The seriousness of it is very much the same. Even in big films, you mustn’t fall into a trap of being lazy and you should work as much as possible with being honest with what you play.”

Scroll through images of the Yusr Awards at the Red Sea Film Festival 2022 below

Updated: December 28, 2022, 12:41 PM