'Dachra': Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
An acquired taste.

A Tunisian horror film set in a cannibal village closed the Venice Critics Week with some chills.

A trio of childish, squabbling, blockheaded journalism students stumble onto a backwoods village compound full of human bones, intestines drying on the wash line and malodorous boiling pots, all without catching on that they could be in serious danger until the final — too late, my friend — reels of Dachra. The characters are irritating, the look is cheap and the plot is reheated from other movies, but it has to be admitted that Dachra delivers its unsavory thrills.

The strange thing is that this is a Tunisian horror film, a genre almost never seen. First-time director, screenwriter and editor Abdelhamid Bouchnak does his level best to obliterate the film’s location by filming in generic rooms and abstract backgrounds. The audience is wittily warned this is not going to be your standard Tunisian drama: In a classroom, whose simple decor consists of piles of rotting books, a dapper prof hands out assignments. Each student is to submit a video project, individually or in a group. The only restriction is — no stories about the revolution! Not that he’s against the revolution, mind you, but last year he got 20 identical projects on that very topic.

So Dachra speeds off in a different direction, which is not a bad thing in itself. If only it had dared to be a little more original instead of a knock-off of familiar, no-budget, lost-in-the-woods horror films. A lot of desaturated black-and-white gives it a dull found-footage look that adds to its old-fashioned feel.

The opening scene takes no prisoners. A man with a knife bends over an unconscious little boy (“He has the key in his eye!”) and gets ready to slit his throat. Next we see blood being washed from a round rock as though a ceremony had been completed.

Cut to the humdrum world of the journalism class. Yasmine (Yasmine Dimassi) already sports the bossy ill humor of a successful investigative reporter. She powwows with her mates Walid (Aziz Jbali) and Bilel (Bilel Slatnia), the film’s leading actors, who look so similar it takes time to distinguish them. One is a cameraman and the other records sound, and they seem to hate each other from the way they argue throughout the film.

They decide to interview a madwoman named Mongia, who has been locked up for the last 20 years in an asylum. They are warned she has a tendency to bite. Though it’s fairly illogical that the crew is left alone with this dangerous inmate, it makes one of the film’s scarier scenes.

Hot on the scent of a scoop, the trio next drives into the wild and adventures into the woods, ignoring all the usual warning signs until they reach the sinister Dachra compound. It is filled with silent, staring women and an eager little girl who contrast all the more to modern troop leader Yasmine and her crew. At this point, the three have made themselves so obnoxious one really doesn’t care what happens to them. But again, Bouchnak surprises us by concocting some horrible frights out of this cliched setup.

Though she is obviously the center of the story, the ballsy Yasmine loses her courageous heroine stature at just the wrong moment. Adding to the carnage, her religious grandfather turns up and finds out that his prayers don’t work on evil incarnate.

One seriously objectionable thing about the screenplay is the final, misleading written title, “In North Africa, hundreds of children are the victims of witchcraft,” accompanied by a blurred photo to prove its point. In truth, the common and tragic scenario in certain parts of Africa is that poverty-stricken parents are unable to feed their children and accuse unruly offspring of being wizards and sorcerers before kicking them out on the street. To suggest the kids are witches is to perpetuate their stigma.

Production companies: Shkoon Production in association with SVP Production
Cast: Yasmine Dimassi, Aziz Jbali, Bilel Slatnia, Hela Ayed, Hedi Majri, Rahri Rahali
Director-screenwriter-editor: Abdelhamid Bouchnak
Producer: Abdelhamid Bouchnak, Omar Ben Ali
Director of photography: Hatem Nechi
Production designer: Fatma Madani
Costume designer: Basma Dhaouadi
Music: Rached Hmaoui, Samy Ben Said
Venue: Venice Film Festival

113 minutes