There’s no need for writer/director Mehdi Fikri to spend too much time on the tragic death of twenty-five-year-old Arab-Frenchman Karim itself. We already know what happened. His brother Driss (Sofiane Zermani) calls their sister Malika (Camélia Jordana) about him being arrested and then again shortly thereafter about him being in the hospital—so it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to read between the lines, regardless of the spin the police and courts will feed the media. This apparent “death-by-epileptic-fit” is merely a catalyst for the real purpose behind After the Fire. It sets the stage to depict just how damaging systemic racism is in countries dominated by institutions built upon white supremacy.

Because it doesn’t end with Karim. Not only is his death just the latest in a long line of police injustices that certainly won’t end with him either, but it proves a tipping point for those surviving him as far as deciding how far they’re willing to go for the idea of justice. Because the odds actual justice will be served are slim. And don’t even pretend to believe the inevitable rejection will be swift either. This system is built to overwhelm, demoralize, and bankrupt. The reason the rich always go free and the poor rot in jail isn’t as much about the prejudice of a jury or a judge as it is about the resources to even get your day in court with them.

So many similar tales of police brutality focus on the victim whether it be the lead-up to their death, the ensuing courtroom drama, or the violence wrought in their name. Fikri takes a different approach. He includes those integral aspects, but in the background of the fight Malika leads to ensure the world discovers the truth. That means finding a lawyer (Makita Samba) who doesn’t want to be found—at least not by someone who probably won’t be able to pay him. It means balancing the wishes of her father to bury Karim and those of activists like Slimane (Samir Guesmi) who knows pouncing now is their only chance to prevent this death from being forgotten like the rest.

At what cost, though? Raising funds for the lawyer. Postponing burial for another autopsy untainted by police interference. Dedicating every waking hour to keeping Karim’s memory alive with the media, public, and protests all while straining relationships at home. Malika is a mother who works a table at the local market with her husband (Sofian Khammes). To fight for her brother means abandoning them. It’s the same with Driss once his justifiable temper starts putting his own freedom at risk. Their spouses must juggle emotional support with the mounting frustrations that go along with the reality their normal will never be the same. Not if Malika’s bills demand dissolving their company. Not if Driss goes to jail.

It seems unconscionable. Any sane person who watches the hoops these characters must jump through just to be heard above the dollar signs even their allies put above their heads would instantly conclude the system is broken, but they would be wrong. The system is working as planned. Its for-profit methods are simply made more visible as the wealth disparity on our planet grows larger. The police lie and the courts ignore because of bigotry and hate, but also because of being overworked and understaffed. And it’s the bureaucracy that causes these conditions that also seeks to alleviate them by ensuring most cases with legitimate evidence to spark real change are buried under red tape.

This is therefore a bleak tale insofar as how the details intrinsically work to pit its characters against themselves. What begins as a unified front caught up in the emotions of what occurred gradually becomes a mathematical equation demanding a choice between the concrete here and now and the uncertainty of a distant future. You have realists like Karim’s father wanting to put his boy in the ground instead of delaying religious rituals for a war they’ll never win and radicals like Malika willing to lose everything for the truth. And you can’t blame either side for feeling the way they do. Their father’s generation is tired. Malika’s is emboldened. Her Arab toddler might be next.

After the Fire is also hopeful. Maybe not about changing the system, but that those fighting will at least be heard. You’d love to believe the cost will never become too high, but that’s an impossibly complex ask (just because Malika’s husband is discouraged and Driss’ wife afraid doesn’t mean they don’t understand). Whereas some take to the streets instantly, others (like Sonia Faidi’s Nour, their youngest sibling) needs more coaxing to deprogram the lies and recognize that this many “bad apples” constitutes a pattern. To do so means platforming and politicizing the victims’ pain because thoughts and prayers will never be enough. We cannot let people look away—not even those in mourning.

After the Fire premiered at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

Grade: B

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