by Fabien Lemercier
- CANNES 2019: With her first feature, Mounia Meddour revisits the dark hours of the dirty war in Algiers, following a very determined young woman who longs for freedom
“Obey, or we’ll take care of you”. In Algiers, in the 1990s, the impact of the war between the government and Islamist groups is spreading to all levels of society. Through the prism of a young woman full of energy and hope (no doubt inspired by her own memories), Mounia Meddour returns to this sombre period in her feature debut, Papicha [+see also:
interview: Mounia Meddour
film profile], discovered in Un Certain Regard at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival.
Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri), the Papicha (which means “beautiful girl” in Algerian) of the title, is in her third year of French studies at the university. But she is most of all an indomitable personality who does not hesitate to break the rules in order to indulge her passion for fashion design. She sneaks out at night with her friend Wassila (Shirine Boutella), escaping — with the paid help of the guard — from the university residence where they reside to take a taxi for a nightclub where she sells her dresses in the bathroom. On the way, the two friends put their makeup on and move to the sound of the radio, until they are forced to hastily hide themselves under a hijab during a routine roadside check executed by the army. Indeed, the atmosphere in Algiers is very heavy. The radio spouts out news of terrorist attacks; posters calling for women to wear “the Muslim woman’s hijab” cover the walls; small fundamentalist groups invade classes at the university (“you are perverting the youth”); and the longing for exile is at its most acute. But Nedjma doesn’t want to leave the country she loves, and the young woman refuses to let the dominant macho discourse walk all over her. Wassila and her are more into nighties and leopard-printed thongs, and the two of them do not hesitate to gently mock their roommate, the pious Samira (Amira Hilda Douaouda). But this vociferous energy will be brutally struck by the murder of Nedjma’s sister, a committed journalist. Devastated, but refusing the give up her ideals of freedom, Papicha thus decides to organise, at the university residence, a fashion show featuring haiks (rectangular headpieces covering the entire body). But the warnings and threats get more specific (“cover yourself before a death shroud does it for you”) as the big day approaches…
A feminist portrait, Papicha seduces especially for its energy, its freshness and the charisma of its lead character. Without truly looking for nuance, the film nevertheless succeeds at accurately recreating the distressing climate of 1990s Algeria, the reign of arranged marriages, the atmosphere of increasing violence, and the pressure borne by women, who were the prime targets of the indoctrinated (“gatherings of women on Fridays are sins”). It’s a picture of young people who are caught between two traps (submission or exile), that moves forward at the pace of its heroine’s determination, who is always in movement. A simple and efficient film whose topic, now almost a classic (see: Mustang [+see also:
interview: Deniz Gamze Ergüven
film profile], among others), beautifully pays homage to the women who persevere in the face of adversity, to dream of a better world.
Produced by French companies The Ink Connection and High Sea Production, and co-produced by Tayda Films from Algeria, by Scope Pictures from Belgium, and by Qatar, Papicha is sold internationally by Jour2Fête.
(Translated from French)
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