Review: Dachra (2021)

Directed by Abdelhamid Bouchnak. Written by Abdelhamid Bouchnak. Starring Yassmine Dimassi, Aziz Jebali, Bilel Slatnia. Runtime 1h 54 min. Released July 9, 2021.

This review contains mild spoilers.

As I’m still diving deeper into world cinema, it’s safe to say Dachra is the first film I’ve seen out of Tunisia. In fact, it’s reportedly Tunisia’s first horror film. Director Abdelhamid Bouchnak, who also pens the film’s screenplay, shows his country is capable of some creepy scenes.

Dachra is disturbingly inspired by true events, too. Take that with a grain of salt, as in this film’s case it appears to simply be inspired by the fact that hundreds of kids are affected by witchcraft in North Africa each year. But if you just take this being inspired by true events at face value, it’s sure to get under your skin even more.

This film follows a trio of journalism students whose professor gives them 15 days to get an exclusive story and document it. The three are Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi), Walid (Aziz Jebali) and Bilel (Bilel Slatnia). For their story, Walid suggests looking into the case of Mongia (Hela Ayed), a woman who was found on the side of a highway 20 years ago with her throat slashed. She survived and is now living in a mental institution, and she is believed to be a witch. This leads them on a journey trying to find the village from which she escaped, and that community’s the titular Dachra. Once there, nightmares ensue.

Yassmine is the film’s most interesting character, and the performance by Yassmine Dimassi is notable, especially in the first half. We learn that she’s plagued by nightmares of a Woman in Black, as she wakes up from a nightmare to be consoled by her grandfather, Béchir (Bahri Rahali) in one scene.

The characters of Walid and Bilel are not as strong. They’re interchangeable and could have easily been combined into one person. Bilel is selfish and obnoxious; while Walid is sensible and responsible. Their performances feel similar, as well, though they both have memorable moments. Bilel gets the perfect chance to show that he’s a schmuck by throwing glass bottle after glass bottle into a deep pit as Yassmine is on the phone. It’s something that feels like the actor Bilel Slatnia and the director thought up on the day when they saw the glass bottles.

Aziz Jebali, Bilel Slatnia and Yassmine Dimassi in Dachra. (Courtesy of Dekanalog.)

Walid is memorable for the wrong reasons. After their first night is Dachra, he watches something on Bilel’s camera he should definitely sound the alarm about. He’s disturbed yet doesn’t mention anything, and it’s a bizarre character choice like this that I wish was cut out of the film. It’s so distracting and awkwardly staged, just the decision not to tell the group, that it was the first domino of annoyance for me.

Then, in the third act, the characters barely listen to each other. Each one comes in and desperately wants to leave. For example, Bilel wants to leave and Yassmine listens calmly, but completely forgets she, too, wanted to leave like 10 minutes ago. Rinse and repeat. It’s strange, and I thought everyone was taking crazy pills.

The film’s pacing is also that of a slow-burn film. I’m fine with those even if they can get boring, but if you’re given 113 minutes to tell a story, I expect to not be left with a lot of questions. Even after an exhaustive exposition dump with voiceover, we get many interesting answers, but Dachra focuses on the how of the situation and how they got there, and never the why. In this film’s case, I just wanted the why. Sure, it enhances the mystery of the world, but I want to be smiling as the film reveals its twists and turns. Instead, Dachra frustrated.

One fun aspect of the town is Dachra’s community leader, Saber, who’s very kind but sinister. The actor who plays him is great (though I couldn’t find the actor’s name on IMDb). His matter-of-fact delivery about one moment is great. He tells Yassmine that his brother married their cousin, explaining his niece Rebeh. “You know the risk,” he says to her. The way this dryly feels like a version of The Hills Have Eyes in this moment is hilarious. That film does feel like one of Dachra’s inspirations.

Character of Rebeh in Dachra. (Courtesy of Dekanalog.)

As for this film’s horror, some sequences are predictable, but they’re still effective. Bouchnak’s horror also has a strong, creepy atmosphere. I thought the horror sequences and that direction was better than the screenplay, which I found messy at times. The imagery in the film is great, too, especially on the first evening they’re there and how the shadows and moonlight are used.

The film goes downhill after that first night in Dachra as the bad character decisions started flowing in. However, I think this is an interesting film for people to watch. That atmosphere is worth it, and Dachra gets full points for not being completely the Tunisian The Blair Witch Project.

It’s similar – a trio of journalism students investigate a sinister community – but I enjoyed that this team refrained from using found footage. I loved that this way filmed in the standard way, as the story felt more compelling, and Hatem Nechi’s cinematography is strong.  In one car scene, there’s a great angle as the three stars travel to a psych hospital to meet Mongia. We see the action as the camera’s propped on the hood of the car. We see their conversation and the streets and the landmarks they pass. It’s pretty cool, and all the while I was thinking, “Sheesh, that’s a dirty car.”

Score: 50/100

Dachra is currently available in U.S. theatres from July 9, and is also avaiable on Shudder in the U.K.

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