At what point is a film deserving of praise by virtue of it being from a newcomer party to the cinematic fold? At what point does a movie merit kind word of mouth because the cast and crew managed to accomplish the production and post-production phases despite limited means? These are terrifically salient questions to ask when giving a smaller film a chance, one that hails from a region of the globe that honestly has little history of producing genre fair. One imagines that the endeavour was awarded with at best modest financial and moral support. The hurdles to overcome for any minimally budgeted project should not be overlooked. Ultimately, however, the single most important question remains: is the movie any good?
Dachra comes from the mind of Tunisian writer-director Adbelhamid Bouchnak, venturing into the moviemaking business for the very first time, as is the country itself when it comes to horror if the marketing is anything to go by. As the text informs the audience at the very start, Dachrais inspired by true events, as it follows the gritty trials and tribulations of three university journalism students as they work on a documentary essay they believe is rather unique. Yasmine (Yasmine Dimassi), Bilel (Bilel Slatnia), and Walid (Aziz Jbali) believe they hit the goldmine of controversial topics when Walid insists they visit the local psychiatric treatment ward and attempt to film a woman by the name of Mongia who many believe is a witch. The patient was discovered along the road over two decades ago in a terrifying state and has been defiant against her treatment ever since, to say nothing of the rumours of her apparent manipulation of the dark arts. One thing leads to another and the trio, whilst locating the spot they believe the sorceress was discovered, stumble on a small, closely-knit community of meat-loving folk sequestered deep in the woods. Their journalism professor won’t believe his eyes when they come back with this footage!
When covering film festivals, there is a temptation to give smaller pictures the benefit of the doubt. Their journey to finally seeing the light of day (or the darkness of the theatre room, more properly speaking) was understandably more risky than, say, the latest effort from a big name director with an all-star cast. The latter group certainly had to work hard to make their project a reality, but they probably had much more backing than the former group, in addition to film festivals clamouring at the opportunity to feature their film. Not so with something like Dachra. That being said, with experience as a film reviewer, be it for press screenings, a blogger, or the always exciting festivals, a certain honesty eventually takes over, which is crucial when publishing a critique. There’s no purpose in pretending to like a film just because “Aw shucks, it was probably a tough go so let’s all give them a pass.”
Dachra is heartbreakingly disappointing. What’s most strange is how little of an identity it has. One would think that as the representative of a rare breed like a Tunisian horror movie Adbelhamid Bouchnak and his team would strive for something that would help it stand out from the crowd of ultra gory, jump-scare filled spooky flicks, for let’s be honest here: it’s a massive crowd. It’s an ocean, even. No such effort is made though. Yes, there is mention of the fact that Tunisia has a dark chapter of its past during which children were the victims of witchcraft-related crimes, but the point is an afterthought, never at the picture’s forefront. The movie forsakes a great opportunity to play its cards with a different flavour in favour of appealing to the lowest common denominator, piling on cheap scares, enough gore for the faint of heart to fill a few barf bags, and complete a checklist of unmistakable horror tropes.
A ghost that appears out of nowhere in a basement level library? Check. A crazy-eyed mute child that haunts the protagonists, occasionally erupting in creepy, child-like laughter? Check. Creepy, silent women adorned all in black whose motives are supposed to be mysterious but in truth couldn’t be more obvious? Check. Silence, silence, silence, LOUD NOISE? Check. The chase through labyrinthine corridors and alleyways after someone wearing red? Check. One wishes that last example was a joke, but no, that happens in this movie.
Lessening the experience even more so is the cinematography, which opts for two curious techniques that are repeated consistently. First, there is a plethora of unglamorous close-ups. One extrapolates that the choice aims to inject the movie with a claustrophobic malaise. Well, they got the malaise part down pat. Second, the camera angle is regularly off considering where characters or objects that are the thematic center of a scene are situated. Do scene-specific focal points need to be smack in the middle of the frame? Of course not, yet in the case of Dachra, a shot will rest for a good minute or two with one character talking to another, with only of them featured in the shot to the far right or left-hand side, sometimes a portion of their head out of frame. There is a distinction between disorienting and unpleasant to look at.
Is there any solace to be found in Dachra? Certainly. The three leads have decent chemistry, even if they bicker amongst themselves more often not. Aziz Jbali as Walid is given some particularly juicy lines to tease Bilel with, some of which are actually quite funny. What special effects and prosthetics there are to speak of are reasonably well handled, certainly lending the movie some grisly visuals sure to satisfy the gore hounds out there. They know who they are, bless their hearts.
One of the worst ways one can summarize the end result is unfortunate. Were this yet another mid-budget Hollywood production, it would be easy to lambast it for a lack of creativity, pleading that patrons don’t waste their time or money on it. This is different however, a movie that has come out of nowhere from a group of people that obviously wanted to make their mark on the horror movie scene. Putting into doubt their effort and desire would be ridiculous, for making a movie is a really difficult project. Nevertheless, somewhere in the filmmaking process Dachra lost its way, sacrificing uniqueness and identity for tired tropes and visual cues that are trying to be too clever for their own good. It’s fun to write about, but please don’t let Dachra bewitch you.
The Fantasia Film Festival runs July 11 – August 1. Visit the official website for more information.