Tunisian actor-turned-director Abdelhamid Bouchnak debuted his horror film, "Dachra," in Tunisian theatres earlier this year. Not only is “Dachra” a thrilling story, it also has deeper social undertones.
Tunisian actor Abdelhamid Bouchnak’s directorial debut, “Dachra” (“Village”), is the first true horror film in Tunisia’s film canon and is winning acclaim from critics and movie goers.
“Dachra,” which premiered January 15 in Tunis, tells the story of three journalism students on a trip to an enigmatic rural village to investigate a 25-year-old mystery. Spectators gasped and squirmed at the cast’s chilling performances and were taken aback by the film’s Tunisian themes and symbolism.
“It was nothing like I have ever seen in Tunisian cinema,” said Cyrine, a 21-year-old student. “It was a thrilling experience and I almost jumped out of my seat a couple of times.
“I think the most interesting thing was that it talks about something Tunisian rather than an element that is foreign to us.”
Shkoon Production, in association with SVP Production, took the film to several international film festivals, including the Venice International Film Festival. “Dachra” won the award as “Most Scary Movie” at the International Fantastic Film Festival in Poland.
“It was my dream to make a movie of this genre,” Bouchnak said. “It was difficult to make, especially in Tunisia because the genre is not very familiar to the Tunisian audience.”
Bouchnak said it took courage and risks making a movie that tackles issues that are not usually the focus of Tunisian films. Tunisian cinema is mostly known for film d’auteur and tackling taboos, including religion and sexuality but “Dachra” is more of a psychological exploration of a myth from Tunisian culture.
“A horror film doesn’t have to be unfamiliar territory for us. It needs to be a movie that relates and speaks to us. It is useless to make a movie that is a copy of other international horror movies that have already been made. I am making this movie for a larger audience as well. It would be strange to make a movie about vampires when we don’t have that element in our culture,” Bouchnak said.
Responding to critics who said the movie could perpetuate a negative image of the country with its treatment of witchcraft and sorcery, Bouchnak explained that such beliefs exist but are rare. Due to their mysterious nature, those myths provided artistic inspiration for his film.
“I wanted something that could also intrigue the international audience as well. It is something they are not familiar with but I don’t think it affects the image of the country. Many people are oblivious to many things that happen inside the country,” Bouchnak said.
“The movie deals with a legend that is not common but it happens,” he added. “The whole country gets affected by it but even if it’s only two incidents that happened during the last five decades it is my choice to talk about it.”
Not only is “Dachra” a thrilling story, it also has deeper social undertones. Bouchnak said the movie was an exploration of generational conflict that seems to be part of modern day Tunisia.
“There is the grandfather who thinks he obtains the truth and knowledge but he keeps it hidden from the younger generation exemplified in his granddaughter and her friends who struggle trying to pursue the truth,” Bouchnak said about one of the themes of the film.
“It is very similar to the Tunisian society where we have older generations and politicians thinking they control things and decide, whereas the youth want to explore,” he added. “In the end, we realise the older generations are not helping the youth but are affecting their decisions. It is a conflict between tradition and modernity.”
Screenings have sold out, with the film popular among young Tunisians in particular.
“The reaction was amazing,” Bouchnak said. “It was exciting but it is also terrifying to have these extraordinary reactions. Some people went to the cinema for the first time in their lives to watch the movie.
“It is an opportunity to promote a new image of Tunisian cinema that is inclusive of all genres. There are different genres and styles in cinema to explore, and it is a shame to restrict ourselves to only one genre that is aimed at the elite but fails to speak to the larger audience.”
Bouchnak, who said a new generation of film-makers is rising in Tunisia, looks for young directors to experiment with new genres.
“Tunisian cinema has made great strides in recent years. It is rejuvenating cinema and the movie theatres,” Bouchnak said. “I am for the idea of a new wave. Why not have our own genre and our own cinema?”