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Ghost Trail (Les Fantomes)

A Syrian refugee living in Germany travels to France in order to trace the footsteps of his former torturer, in this convoluted blend of mystery and drama - live from Cannes

QUICK AND DIRTY: LIVE FROM CANNES

Hamid (played by fast-rising French0-Tunisian actor Adam Bessa) is released from the Saydnaya military prison near Damascus in 2014. He flees to Europe, leaving his ailing mother in the impoverished Bekaa refugee camp of Beirut. He is a victim of the still ongoing War that ravaged the Middle Eastern nation, a conflict which – according to the film – is Putin’s responsibility (the Russian leader prevented other nations from intervening, a voiceover claims). This is one of the few pieces of geopolitical contextualisation provided. We gradually learn that Hamid was a literature teacher in Aleppo, that his wife and daughter were killed, and that he is a member of an underground organisation that hunts downs war criminals, some sort of Simon Wiesenthal of the Arab world. On the other hand, we gain no insight into the causes the Syrian War, and the various factions battling on the ground. This is a movie torn between priorities. At times, it sets out to be an adrenaline-inducing political thriller. Other times, it veers into heart-wrenching refugee drama territory.

Unless you have read a synopsis or this review, it will take you some time before you work out exactly what Hamid does. Our protagonist assumes various aliases during his investigations: Saled, Amir, Ali, etc. He moves from Berlin to Strasbourg with the sole objective of tracking down his tormentor of yore, a man called Sami Hanna (Tawfeek Barhom), and who also goes by multiple names. He is assisted by a small network of people, including Nina (Julia Franz Richter), a beautiful European woman married to a Syrian man (who we never see). Hamid and Nina have some sort of chemistry, however it’s never clear whether they have any romantic feelings for one another. Hamid is convinced that he has found Sami, and Nina wishes to hand him over to the leaders of their secret investigation cell. This is when their relationship begins to collapse, and the entire ordeal could suddenly take a turn for the worse.

This is a highly confusing story that could be summarised in countless ways. A movie intoxicated by excessive narrative devices. Voice recordings of torture victims, voiceovers by multiple characters, video calls with mum, and a clumsy war video game (I still have no idea of its intended purpose) are intertwined to messy results. A one-way journey from Syria to Europe, travel from Berlin to Strasbourg and back, a journey to Lebanon via Turkey: the complex geography of the story also helps to vouch for the fracturing of the narrative arc. While some of the puzzle pieces do come together at the end, which is more or less coherent, it is just too late to engage viewers. Allegedly based on real facts, Ghost Trail feels more like a patchwork of individual statements sewn together by an outsider. It provides no information about the real-life organisation on which the story is presumably based.

Despite the script limitations, Bessa delivers a profound and emotional performance. He is obstinate and vulnerable in equal measures. A relatable vigilante, who possesses the most noble virtues of humanity. Ghost Trails boasts a fascinating topic, and an excellent lead (although I cannot comment on the quality of his Arabic, and the accuracy of his Syrian impersonation). Sadly, it’s too labyrinthine and also vaguely exoticised. Clearly a foreign gaze into the world of an Arab refugee. Jonathan Millet, who both directed and wrote the film, is a French philosopher and stock photographer, and Ghost Trail is his debut fiction feature.

Ghost Trail just opened the Critics’ Week section of the 77th Festival de Cannes


By Victor Fraga - 15-05-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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