Director: Abdelhamid Bouchnak
Cast: Hela Ayed, Yassmine Dimassi, Aziz Jbali, Bilel Slatnia
Watch Dachra: Curse of the Witch online in the UK: iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent)
“Inspired by true events” states the 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 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.
The feature debut of writer/director Abdelhamid Bouchnak, Dachra steeps itself in the influence of western horror – the institutional dungeon of The Silence of the Lambs, the student journalists lost in the woods of The Blair Witch Project, the little girl in a red raincoat of Don’t Look Now, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’s meat of dubious origin and the terrifying coven of Suspiria – 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: firstl the hidden gothic bowels of an asylum, untouched by modern reform; 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 de-centre the image, and likes to place the camera at skew-whiff angles, ensuring that the national picture always seems distorted and off-kilter. A later reveal might seem a little po-faced, but what remains compelling is the depiction of a society that, despite the radical change of recent revolution, still has a long way to go in its advance towards an enlightened, progressive future unbound from the dog-eat-dog drives (and misogynistic oppressions) of a still-living past. Here, ancient forces literally eat the future.