Disingenously claiming to be based on true events, Dachra (2018) is a modern Tunisian witchcraft movie which draws on local superstitions to construct a fairly standard horror movie plot with some distinctive visual elements.
Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi) is a journalism student who lives with her grandfather and suffers from bad dreams related to the disappearance of her mother when she was young. When her class is given the task of filming a news story for their end-of-semester assignment on any topic except the Tunisian revolution (apparently a local in-joke), her friend Walid (Aziz Jebali) suggests they investigate a local legend about a woman who has been in a psychiatric hospital for 20 years and who is reputed to be a witch.
With Bilel (Bilel Slatnia) as cameraman and Walid on sound duties, their initial attempt to interview the director of the hospital meets only denial that the patient exists. Walid bribes the hospital staff to let them in after hours and they finally manage to meet with Mongia (Hela Ayed), who reacts disturbingly to Yassmine’s presence. Somebody strays too close, Mongia attacks one of the nursing staff, and the trio flees in panic from the cell as the security staff are alerted. The one thing they come away with is a map marking the location at which Mongia was found with her throat cut 20 years ago, leading them to investigate.
Up until this point, there hasn’t been much to distinguish this film. Its most noticeable characteristic has been director Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s penchant for composing shots with a single person positioned at the edge of frame, filling the rest of the image with blank white walls or whatever else happens to be present in the urban environment. Disappointingly, there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for filming in this way. If he’s trying to create the expectation that something will intrude from the other side of the screen to menace the sole occupant, it doesn’t really work – there is one instance I can think of which might be seen as taking advantage of this set-up, but if so the intended shot didn’t really land. Possibly he’s trying to create a sensation that these characters have been forced into a corner and isolated, but I suspect that would be reading too much into things in an attempt to justify a technique which has no such intent.
The movie really comes alive in the latter half, when the trio venture into the wilderness to locate the small village (the dachra of the title) marked on the map. The forest in this mountainous region is appropriately spooky; their first encounter with a human being is a small girl dressed in red with her back to them (reminiscent of Don’t Look Now), who turns to reveal eyes bulging unsettlingly while the blood of a decapitated pigeon drips from her mouth; the village to which they follow the fleeing girl is ramshackle and decrepit, populated by women who refuse to speak to strangers and the sole male resident, a cheery and welcoming man who is extraordinarily focused on encouraging them to accept the village’s hospitality.
Needless to say, staying the night was not a good decision and it becomes increasingly difficult for the students to leave. As events build and revelations accrue, the film owes full credit for its atmosphere to cinematographer Hatem Nechi, who captures the village and its surrounding environment with great skill, creating the impression that the location itself is encroaching on the students and swallowing them into the villagers’ trap. The setting is the real star of this final stretch, over-writing the first half of the film to create the more lasting impression, although for me the lingering remnants of the first half taint the film’s overall effect.
If you’ve never seen this particular plot done before, the film may make a greater impact on you. As someone who has seen this plot several times before, I don’t think it’s one of the better versions, but I still find much to admire in the second half and could see myself revisiting it if it turned up on TV.