Thrilling debut about a Syrian refugee in Europe taking revenge opens Critics Week

Ghost Trail (Les Fantômes)

Source: Cannes Critics’ Week

‘Ghost Trail (Les Fantômes)’

Dir: Jonathan Millet. France. 2024. 106mins

The quest for justice fuels a tense manhunt in the first fiction feature from writer/director Jonathan Millet, which balances cloak and dagger intrigue with an acute psychological exploration of grief, loss and exile. A charismatic central performance from Adam Bessa lends gravitas to an assured, involving tale inspired by true events. Opening Critics Week at Cannes should help attract the attention of festival programmers and distributors.

An assured, involving tale inspired by true events

The film begins in 2015, as we see Hamid (Bessa, who in 2022 won the Un Certain Regard best actor prize for his role in Harka and was named a Screen Arab Star Of Tomorrow) and a group of men crowded together in the back of a truck. Beaten and weary, the men are let loose deep in the Syrian desert and left stumbling into the light. Two years later, Hamid is in Strasbourg. We are gradually made aware that he is part of a clandestine network of Syrian refugees intent on tracking down some of those responsible for the Bashar regime’s worst atrocities.

Gillet uses familiar ingredients: John Le Carre-style secret meetings on a park bench with Hamid’s handler Nina (Julia Franz Richter), cash hidden in a book, instructions from anonymous superiors. Hamid is trying to discover the whereabouts of a ‘cousin’ called Sami Hanna. In reality, his quarry is Harfaz,  a man responsible for numerous acts of torture at the notorious Sednaya prison.

Adam Bessa’s grave, unsmiling features convey the sense of a man consumed by his mission. We learn that Hamid was from Aleppo and lost his wife and child. Now, he is caught in a web of concealment and deception. Normal life has become an unfamiliar concept. Responding to the possibility of romance with fellow refugee Yara (Hala Rajab) seems beyond him. Once a week, he dresses smartly and has a Zoom call with his mother, who remains in a Beirut refugee camp, She believes he is in Berlin, starting to make friends and build a new life. To others, he is a professor of literature who has fled the Syrian regime for a fresh start in Europe. 

The tension grows when Hamid think he has found Harfaz in Strasbourg. There is something about a man named ’Hassan’ (Tawfeek Barhom) that he seems to recognise. It is in his voice, the way he moves and smells. An injured hand seems to make it conclusive.The question arises of what he should do next. 

Millet confidently keeps the focus on Hamid throughout. The opening sequence is the only flashback in the story, and the experiences of those held at Sednaya prison are contained in taped witness statements that Hadim hears. The camera is on him and with him throughout various encounters and the cat and mouse game that develops with ’Hassan’, who is played with disarming affability by Barhom. 

Millet and cinematographer Olivier Boonjing encourage a sense of intimacy with Hamid through the use of close-ups. His attempt to discover the true identity of ‘Hassan’ is seen in a moment when he stand so close behind him in a queue that he is able to breath in his scent. The score by electronic musician Yuksek adds a throb of intrigue and menace as Hamid moves closer to the truth.

Ghost Trail also offers a portrait of the refugee experience in Europe – the wariness of meeting strangers, the conflict between sticking with your own and avoiding those who are a reminder of the past, the bureaucratic hurdles to be faced and the niggling question of whether the rest of the world has any interest in bringing the war criminals of Syria to justice. Gillet handles those bigger questions lightly, using everything at his disposal to serve our understanding of Hamid and his trauma. The sense of lone wolf obsession that threatens to overwhelm this man has echoes of Coppola’s The Conversation (1974). While the thriller element remains compelling, it is ultimately eclipsed by the gripping focus on a man haunted by the past.

Production companies: Films Grand Huit

International sales: Mk2 Films

Producer: Pauline Seigland 

Screenplay: Jonathan Millet, Florence Rochat

Cinematography: Olivier Boonjing

Production design: Esther Mysius

Editing: Laurent Senechal

Music: Yuksek

Main cast: Adam Bessa, Tawfeek Barhom, Julia Franz Richter, Hala Rajab