Tunisian first-time director Abdelhamid Bouchnak is at the Venice Film Festival with “Dachra,” one of the first horror films to come out of the Arab world, which closed the independently-run Critics’ Week section on Friday. It combines elements of American chillers such as “The Blair Witch Project” with visuals and tropes that are instead specific to Arabic cinema, and tackles the topic of witchcraft as a motive for murders, a practice that still exists in parts of North Africa. Bouchnak, who studied filmmaking in his country and in Montreal, spoke to Variety about the challenges of going the genre rout for his debut which Celluloid Dreams is selling internationally.
“Dachra” is the first horror film out of Tunisia and a very rare case of a horror film out of the Arab world at large. Do you feel like a pioneer? What drew you to this genre?
It’s a choice I made because I love horror movies like “The Shining” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” cult titles that have made their mark. I like it when the audience goes home and keeps thinking about what they saw. But I also chose to make a horror movie for my debut because I was struck by a news item [about witchcraft] that made me think about this genre. On the one hand it draws deeply on the tradition and culture of my country and on the other it’s a reworking of a typically American genre…but with an Arabic visual language.
Was it easy to get produced?
No, it’s a self-produced movie. It was a real challenge.
You make it clear at the end of “Dachra” that it’s meant to be against witchcraft which still exists in Africa.
Yes I wanted to tackle this theme because I find it insane and macabre that there are human beings that can be possessed to kill or mutilate the bodies of children or adults, which is a still a mind-boggling reality in parts of North Africa. I ask myself: how is it possible that a human being can commit heinous gestures such as slitting a child’s throat thinking this will lead to finding a hidden treasure? I wanted to explore the folly that can transform man into a monster.
I think there may also be a broader political subtext. Critics’ Week chief Giona Nazzaro, presenting “Dachra” to the press in Rome, said it tackles the conflict between tradition and modernity through the hope for a revolution that is not yet accomplished. Do you agree?
Yes, that’s true. There is a generational conflict in my country which is one of the causes of Tunisia’s stagnation. It’s a divided country with two opposed and irreconcilable mentalities, which don’t understand each other. On the one hand the young generations which have an open mind and are open to change and innovation. On the other the older generation, tied to tradition and a conservative vision of the future…All this is reflected in the film. You have the young characters who want to solve the mystery of these acts of witchcraft, and on the other hand a generation that wants to keep secrets and escape from reality. Tunisia right now is a country that doesn’t know where it’s going. There’s a part of the country that would like to move forward and another that wants to maintain the status quo.