Dachra first published by VODzilla.co
“Inspired by true events,” states text at the beginning of Dachra, as the camera tracks a humming man carry a sack from the boot of his car to a square where the sack’s contents – a young boy – are ritually, bloodily sacrificed. The scene is impressionistic, shot close over the man’s shoulder and in the dark, so that it is difficult to discern exactly what is happening or where – and any connection that these horrors might have to reality is concealed until the close of the film, when a second text states precisely which particularly North African phenomenon has inspired the film (I won’t spoil).
In fact, a very different kind of inspiration dominates the feature debut of writer/director Abdelhamid Bouchnak. There is the infernal institutional dungeon of The Silence of the Lambs (1991), the student journalists lost in the woods from The Blair Witch Project (1999), the little girl in a red raincoat from Don’t Look Now (1973), the meat of dubious origin from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) and the terrifying coven from Suspiria (1977). In other words, Dachra steeps itself in the influence of western horror, even as the Tunisian setting serves to repay these borrowed tropes with interest. Here the global language of genre is splattered with local colour.
Students of journalism Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi), Walid (Aziz Jbali) and Bilel (Bilel Slatnia) are given an assignment to create a filmed investigative report from scratch with a 15-day deadline. “I want nothing banal,” explains their professor, “and please, nothing on the Revolution! I have nothing against it, but last year I had 20 projects on this desk, all of them identical. So, exclusive stories only.” With these words, he might as well be setting out the remit for Dachra itself, and what will set it aside from other Tunisian films. In fact the trio’s journey will take them back to a pre-revolutionary period: first the hidden gothic bowels of an asylum, untouched by the modern reforms upstairs; and then a backwoods village stuck in its own primitive past. Yassmine too, the very model of contemporary womanhood, cannot quite shake the terrifying visions that she has of a forgotten childhood, nor can she fully recognise the part that she once narrowly escaped in a drama of local folkloric superstition. This is a portrait of Tunisia still haunted by its own horrific history and primeval traditions.
Cinematographer Hatem Nechi tends to decentre the image, and likes to place the camera at skew-whiff angles, ensuring that the national picture here always seems distorted and off-kilter. It is also an ingenious way of distracting us from a twist whose signs are there from the start, but easily go unnoticed when kept to the frame’s margins. The revelation, at the end, of the ‘true events’ that have inspired the film might seem a little po-faced – but what nonetheless remains more broadly compelling here is the depiction of a society which, despite the radical change of recent revolution, still has a long way to go in its advance towards an enlightened progressiveness unbound from the dog-eat-dog drives (and misogynistic oppressions) of a still-living past. For here ancient forces literally eat the future.
© Anton Bitel