In Morocco, Achoura is a widely anticipated festival held over one day in September, but for children, the most anticipated moment comes the evening after its end with ‘Zem Zem’ or ‘Children’s Night’. It’s a night of bonfires and dancing, where children will throw water over each other in the streets; in other words, an incredibly happy time. But for the children in Talal Selhami’s twisted horror fantasy Achoura, Zem Zem is the perfect night for a child-capturing monster to run riot.
Selhami taps into a generational fear by depicting his horrors through two generations of children, both of which entail a friend going missing. This legend of a creature known as Bougatate plagues one group of friends whose friend Samir (Noé Lahlou and Omar Lotfi respectively) went missing around 20 years earlier. Now in their adult lives Ali (Younes Bouab), Nadia (Sofiia Manousha) and Stéphane (Iván González) have all found ways to cope − or in Nadia’s case, forget – the events that led up to Samir’s disappearance. Ali works as a police officer, specialising in cases surrounding missing children and child abuse, and Stéphane channels his confusion into art, depicting his memory of Bougatate in paint and pencil. The essence of Stephen King’s IT is not to be denied, the film flits back and forth between the group as children and as adults, living and relearning their trauma and cleverly allowing the audience to figure out the role of each character without explicitly pointing it out.
Old memories are forced back to the surface when Samir unexpectedly returns, with a horse’s bit strapped to his mouth and an inability to talk. Bougatate is back and it’s down to the group to get back together and banish him for good to finally save their friend. The structure of jumping back and forth in time to find out how the group originally stumbled across the dilapidated house where the monster was hidden unravels the mystery at a steady and intriguing pace, perfectly blending frights, fantasy, and emotional revelations.
Bougatate’s design alone feels quite unique, skeletal yet not of this earth and almost cartoonish enough for it to be a believable vision that many generations of children would recall seeing. Black smoke drifts when he is near and the use of shadow in Mathieu De Montgrand’s cinematography doesn’t go unnoticed. This dark fantasy element weaved throughout the film adds to the childlike idea, as if this were a folktale in a storybook read aloud to stop children from misbehaving. It’s strangely charming in a twisted sense, complimented by the score from Romain Paillot that is the films standout, echoing the musical notes of the darkest chapters of the Harry Potter series.
To western audiences, the originality of getting to see folklore, legends, and monsters from countries other than the US and UK is always a thrill and feels particularly special. The macabre vision of Talal Selhami’s North African Achoura adopts its fantastical childish nightmare quality to its creature and its generation-spanning terror makes it more emotionally resonant than most other films of its subgenre.
by Chloe Leeson
Chloe Leeson is the founder of SQ. She hails from the north of England (the proper north that people think is actually Scotland but isn’t). Her life source is Harmony Korine’s 90s Letterman interviews and Ezra Miller’s jawline. She is a costume designer for hire who spends far too much time watching bad horror movies. Her favourite films are Into The Wild, Lords of Dogtown, Stand by Me and Pan’s Labyrinth. She rants about cinema screenings @kawaiigoff and logs them on letterboxd here