Dachra. 2021. Directed & Written by Abdelhamid Bouchnak.
Starring Yassmine Dimassi, Hela Ayed, Aziz Jebali, Bilel Slatnia, & Bahri Rahali.
Shkoon Production / SVP Production
Not Rated / 114 minutes
★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)
DISCLAIMER: The following essay contains significant spoilers!
Turn back, else ye be forever spoiled.
Dachra‘s been marketed as the first horror film to come out of Tunisia, and if so then the Tunisian horror has come out of the gate swinging hard. One of the immediately identifiable things about the film—from director-writer Abdelhamid Bouchnak, his first narrative feature film—is how much influence it pulls from The Blair Witch Project. That isn’t criticism, neither do I mean to imply this film is derivative; the initial setup of Dachra is just so wonderfully reminiscent of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s Blair Witch Project. From the similar premise between the films, Bouchnak takes his story in vastly different directions, using a tale of rural witchcraft in Tunisia as a way to confront difficult social realities in the country’s contemporary society.
Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi), Walid (Aziz Jebali), and Bilel (Bilel Slatnia) are journalism students whose latest assignment for one of their university courses requires that they complete “a filmed investigative report.” Walid suggests they do a story on a woman called Mongia (Hela Ayed); she was found mutilated on a road outside the city and has spent the twenty years since in a psychiatric hospital. After the student trio start investigating, they’re led to a mysterious little village in the countryside called Dachra. The village is strange, full of endless meats and women who won’t, or can’t, speak. After Yassmine uncovers the diary of someone who’d previously been there investigating the village, she also unearths horrific things about Dachra and Mongia’s own history.More than people care to admit the horror genre has been a vessel for highly conservative ideologies. The comparison between rural areas and the city in horror has more often than not painted rural spaces, and the people who occupy them, as backwards, morally, politically, and socially, whether it’s Two Thousand Maniacs! or the likes of Wrong Turn, to name only a couple. Dachra is a case in which director-writer Abdelhamid Bouchnak has used that dynamic but transplanted it into a story where such criticism is valid.
For most of us in the West, witchcraft has been culturally portrayed largely as something used to scapegoat, specifically when it comes to historical misogyny and violence against women, such as in Salem and other places across early modern North America. In different countries amongst the East, witchcraft has been used literally and deliberately by some to commit gruesome acts of violence against even the most vulnerable, such as children; this disturbing point is where Dachra derives its intense and terrifying power, by looking at how Tunisia, and other parts of Africa, has seen countless murders of children in the name of witchcraft.
Late in the film we get glimpses of “the Thing“—a hideous creature that hungers for meat and blood. While we can easily just wrap this creature up on Bouchnak’s concern with witchcraft, we might also consider this in a couple different senses. In one way, the Thing can be read as a symbol, like a manifestation of the Dachra’s collective sin as a village; organs are often used in witchcraft and the Thing is like a receptacle for the bits and pieces leftover. In another way, the Thing can be read as an allegory for the organ trafficking that’s occurred in Tunisia, and other parts of Africa, similarly targeting children like witchcraft; a hideous symbol for a nasty business.Apart from the obvious witchcraft and child murders, Dachra also lends itself to a general reading concerning Tunisia and the older generation’s desire to hold onto tradition rather than submit to progressive change. The character of Bechir (Bahri Rahli) is an important one because he wants to protect his granddaughter, yet he withholds secrets about her own origins. This acts well as a metaphor for the older generation believing they know what’s better for the younger generation, and also how the older generation refuses to admit to their mistakes, as well as their lies, to the detriment of younger generations. Bechir’s role is perfectly captured in the strong image of him washing a table, only to see the water turn to blood pouring over the floor, a parallel with the film’s opening image of a rock covered in blood from a child’s cut throat and then the rock being washed, scrubbed clean. Bechir’s incapable of escaping the past and it’s due to his inability to confront that past, as well as be honest about it with Yassmine, that his granddaughter winds up in a precarious situation in Dachra.
Regarding the toxic traditions of older generations, Bouchnak creates an eerie atmosphere in Dachra with its silent women and a generally patriarchal sense of existence. The village is so entrenched in misogyny that the only woman with any power there is the witch, the “woman in black.” Otherwise it’s men running things and women keeping quiet. The creepy Saber (Hedi Mejeri) tells Yassmine that “women mustn‘t speak to strangers” in the village, though we never once witness any women speaking to anybody, strangers or not. He later dismisses one woman’s warnings to Yassmine by saying: “She‘s dumb.” Walid piles on, claiming the woman is “a crazy girl“; at once calling her mentally unstable and also infantilising her. Although there’s an excellent moment when Yassmine turns this nonsense back on Walid, who suggests the ‘crazy’ lady was jealously trying to get Yassmine out of the village, and she mocks her friend: “Is the forest full of sexy boys?”
One of the most important parts of Dachra is how Bouchnak stresses, through the film’s characters, that the traditional and toxic ways of the ageing, more conservative generations doesn’t die with them; those old ideologies are already ingrained in many of the younger generations raised by dusty conservatives. This is nowhere better seen than in the character of Walid, particularly in a reveal about his character just before the film’s finale. We get an early sense of Walid’s toxic masculine personality when he teases Bilel with lines like “[Yassmine] has bigger balls than you” and “Need your gynaecologist?” This all comes to a head once Walid is revealed to be connected to the village, having led his friends there purposefully, and specifically because we similarly discover Yassmine has a connection to the village, too. Walid’s often casual way of perpetuating the patriarchal values we come to find in Dachra is paid off by the shocking reveal, making for a tense and scary end to the film.
There aren’t many debut narrative features as polished and thematically dense as Dachra. It’s one thing for the themes to be plentiful, it’s another for the film to have a distinctive look and a unique atmosphere, all of which propels those themes forward. It’ll be very fun to see what Bouchnak will do next because this film comes with a lot of promise. There are moments in Dachra, as there were in its biggest inspiration The Blair Witch Project, I’ll likely never forget, a combined product of unsettling imagery and the story’s heavy social significance.
Bouchnak’s film is not only about the conservative ideologies of older generations and how they affect the lives of younger generations, it also leans heavily into a horror film representation of how generational traumas continue to destroy lives. Yassmine’s plot concerning her grandfather Bechir is a great depiction of how generational trauma works its way from one generation to the next, coursing through the family tree until rot sets in and begins to damage any limbs which continue to grow from it. The woman in black haunting Yassmine’s dreams before she ever gets to Dachra also haunts Bechir in a different scene, representing that ever present ghost of generational trauma that continues to linger unless dealt with appropriately. Dachra is a film layered with meaning, not to mention the many corporeal horrors alongside its spectral terrors. It’s a film I won’t soon forget, and one of the few horror films that’s made me want to learn more about another place and its culture. There needs to be more horror from outside of predominantly white countries because it makes the genre better and richer, allowing many audiences a window into different cultures and different lives, even if that window at times offers a bleak and horrifying view.