As the first horror film out of Tunisia, Dachra is a promising start. Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s directorial debut is an atmospheric turn of the screw, where each new step brings our protagonists deeper into the dark woods of danger.
The film follows a group of three students who — for a class project — set off to investigate a crazed woman and supposed witch, rumored to have come from a remote village under mysterious circumstances. In search of answers, they stumble upon a village with dark secrets that threatens both their project and their lives.
Though the story is bewitching, the plot is a bit scattered. But, it leaves a trail of breadcrumbs that help track the film’s path on a second viewing. The pacing stumbles in the second act, but a rousing finale helps to re-route the focus and move forward.
While the students film the entire process, Dachra is far from found footage. It’s beautifully shot and carefully choreographed.
The cinematography (by Hatem Nechi) is absolutely stunning. The camera pushes in for intimate, intense moments, moving delicately to absorb every inch of emotion. Other shots are held at a distance, freezing the audience with chilling imagery drowned in stillness. As an impressive start to the film, the opening is shot in a single take, dragging the audience through the dark and grisly scene.
Lighting is skillfully manipulated to build tension and emphasize tone. There are moments when a single light source is used to backlight a scene, throwing a horrific emphasis on the subject. Lights move and flicker, with a healthy balance of both warm and cool hues to affect the mood and energy of each moment.
Our three main characters — Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi), Walid (Aziz Jbali), and Bilel (Bilel Slatnia) — bicker constantly, picking at each other in a way that speaks more to squabbling siblings than best friends.
For all their quarreling, it’s satisfying to see a female main character interact so candidly without being someone’s love interest. Yassmine holds her own against Walid and Bilel; her tongue is barbed with frustration and she often has final say over the decisions of the group. She is strong and capable, but she’s not impenetrable; she falls under the pressure and terror of the nightmare she finds herself in. She’s incredibly human, and is by far the most fleshed-out character between the three.
Dachra — as a whole — is incredibly atmospheric. It builds a world of blood and grime that feels ancient in its permanence. It’s moody and dismal and overall very effective at creating an uncomfortable environment.
As the first Tunisian horror film — and one of the few horror films in Arabic cinema at large — Dachra tackles a generational conflict that Tunisia is currently facing, while also meditating on brutal practices of witchcraft that still take place in parts of North Africa.
It has a lot of ground to cover. While those themes may be lost on those without knowledge of North African witchcraft practices or the political climate in Tunisia, it’s still an entertaining, well made horror film with a thrilling conclusion, that has made history as Tunisia’s first.