By Greg Burris.
Early on in the Tunisian horror film Dachra (Abdelhamid Bouchnak, 2018), we see a class of university students as they listen to their professor’s instructions for their final assignment. The students are to arrange themselves into groups and produce a filmed investigative report on a subject of their own choosing – any subject at all, with one significant exception. In the professor’s words, “Please, nothing on the revolution.”
Such a seemingly reactionary restriction seems strangely out of step with the times. Ever since January 2011 when protesters took to Tunisia’s streets and toppled Ben Ali’s authoritarian regime, the country has become synonymous with the revolution. Whereas many observers had previously considered this small, North African state as a safe, stable, neoliberal success story (recall here the unfortunate title of U.S. journalist Georgie Anne Geyer’s 2003 book, Tunisia: A Journey Through a Country that Works), it has since become known as home to one of the early twenty-first century’s greatest revolutionary victories, and there has been no shortage of documentaries, news reports, and think pieces about this momentous event.
From this perspective, Dachra seems to come completely out of left field. A Tunisian movie that openly eschews talk of politics and revolution and instead offers audiences a grisly tale of witchcraft and cannibalism? Given the context, such a concept for a film is admittedly a difficult sell, and it is hardly surprising that rookie filmmaker Abdelhamid Bouchnak (who wrote, directed, produced, and edited Dachra) encountered tremendous resistance at all stages of development and production. Indeed, upon the film’s completion, no Tunisian distributors wanted to touch it, and it was only after Dachra had turned heads at various international festivals that it was finally allowed a home country debut. Against all expectations, Dachra was an astounding box-office success. Screenings were reportedly sold-out across the country, and it quickly became the highest grossing local film to hit Tunisian cinemas in more than two decades. Apparently, post-revolutionary Tunisia has a taste for witches and cannibals after all.
The plot of Dachra is straightforward enough. After listening to the professor’s instructions for their class project, the film’s three bickering protagonists – Yassmine (Yassmine Dimassi), Bilel (Bilel Slatina), and Walid (Aziz Jabli) – brainstorm ideas for their class project. Walid recounts a tale that he had once heard about a crazed woman being held in a nearby insane asylum. According to rumors, she was found in the remote countryside over twenty years ago – naked and bleeding but still breathing. Her exact origins remain shrouded in mystery, but some of her current caretakers believe her to be a witch. The trio decides to interview her for their class project. After a predictably chilling encounter at the asylum, they set off into rural Tunisia in search of clues about her mysterious background. Eventually, they find themselves trapped in a strange village – an isolated community of women ruled over by a lone patriarch whose kind hospitality and ever-present smile just barely conceal an underlying malice. As a single night in the village stretches into several days, the three students realize that they might never leave, and the film gradually descends into a dark nightmare of witchcraft, occultism, and cooked flesh.
Like any decent horror film, Dachra pays homage to its predecessors, and it explicitly references many of the classics: most notably, Psycho (Alfred Hitchcock, 1960), Night of the Living Dead (George A. Romero, 1968), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Tobe Hooper, 1974), Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), The Silence of the Lambs (Jonathan Demme, 1991), and The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez, 1999). Perhaps the most memorable tribute of all comes in the form of a small child whose frightening appearance resembles the red-hooded demon of Don’t Look Now (Nicolas Roeg, 1973).
But Dachra does not only offer audiences cut-and-paste imitation, and the film is distinguished by the unique and commanding way it appropriates all of these influences and mixes them with bits of local legend and North African superstition. Dachra does not feel like a Hollywood horror that has merely been dubbed into Arabic. It therefore represents quite a rare breed: a legitimate Arab horror film. While numerous horrors have recently been appearing in the broader Middle East – namely, in Turkey and Iran – Arab cinema has yet to truly delve into this genre. Thus, in this regard, it seems that Tunisia is once again ahead of the curve.
Despite Dachra’s openly declared aversion to conventional politics, the film nevertheless makes quite a political statement, and like so many of the great horror films it quotes and references, Dachra is tremendously subversive. In this film, evil is not depicted as some external menace, as some entirely foreign entity that threatens the cherished status quo. Rather, evil is internal; it dwells at the heart of normality itself. In Dachra, the true monster lurks within: within Tunisian society, within local traditions and culture, within one’s circle of friends and family, and even within oneself.
Dachra’s tendency towards subversion even functions at the level of film form. Almost as soon as the film begins, audiences are confronted by a series of unusual shots: strange camera angles, disconcerting lighting choices, and highly exaggerated film framing. One might initially find these techniques heavy-handed, as if the director had watched one too many Godard films. As Dachra progresses, however, these abrasive formal strategies gradually soften and become more tame. It is as if Dachra is suggesting that in the normal world things are skewed and that it is only when one approaches the hidden, perverse truth that one begins to see things with clarity. Reality, Dachra seems to be saying, is distorted. The world around us is not as it seems.
But perhaps the most surprisingly subversive feature of Dachra is its treatment of religion. To be sure, the film does not go so far as to locate evil in Islam itself. However, it does depict Islam as being entirely ineffective in combating evil. This is especially evident – spoiler alert! – at the climax of the film when it looks as though the religious grandfather of one of the protagonists is going to rescue them from doom. Despite all of his prayers and piety, however, the hope he represents collapses. In Dachra, Islam is not the monster, but significantly, neither it is allowed to be the great savior.
Dachra is by no means a perfect film. There are scenes in which the pacing falls flat, character arcs that leave viewers scratching their heads, and a major plot twist that does not hold up with repeated viewings. But to focus only on these blemishes, I believe, is to ignore the broader picture. Despite its flaws, Dachra represents a unique and important development for Tunisian and Arab cinema in particular and for horror cinema in general. Though it is not as sophisticated as the cinema of, say, Jordan Peele or Bong Joon-ho, Bouchnak’s directorial debut nonetheless stands alongside them as an example of socially and politically engaged genre filmmaking.
What, then, should we make of the professor’s instructions, his request for “nothing on the revolution”? In a way, these words are a ruse. Dachra may not be openly political like so many of those other films and media texts that have appeared in the wake of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution. But by refusing to approach the revolution directly, this gory tale of cannibals and the occult might actually turn out to be even more revolutionary, breaking the generic boundaries of Arab cinema and suggesting that there are still monsters lurking in the dark, even in post-revolutionary Tunisia.
 Geyer’s book has aged particularly badly, and it concluded with the claim that the Tunisian people “didn’t need any revolutions, nor even any rebellions; and unless every indicator was wrong, Tunisians were still willing to give their leaders a long political leash as they continued to make their way through the minefields of development and change.” Georgie Anne Geyer, Tunisia: A Journey Through a Country that Works, (London: Stacey International, 2003), p. 189.
Greg Burris is an Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the American University of Beirut and the author of The Palestinian Idea: Film, Media, and the Radical Imagination (Temple University, 2019).