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LOCARNO 2019 Filmmakers of the Present

Review: 143 Sahara Street


- Hassen Ferhani’s Locarno prizewinning documentary about a truck stop in the Sahara desert is a slow-burning delight

Review: 143 Sahara Street

Director Hassen Ferhani won the Best Emerging Director Award in the Filmmakers of the Present section of the recent Locarno Film Festival for his documentary 143 Sahara Street [+see also:
film profile
. It will have its North American premiere in the Wavelengths section of the impending Toronto International Film Festival.

Like the Wayne Wang and Paul Auster film Smoke (1995), and its follow-up, Blue in the Face (1995), which took place in a Brooklyn tobacconist’s store, the premise of 143 Sahara Street is simple: it follows the interactions between customers who go into a café in the Sahara desert and its fascinating owner.

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The proprietor, Malika, is an old lady who, despite her age, runs this café in the Sahara, on Route One. She makes coffee and eggs for the wide array of visitors who enter the café, and as she does so, she laments the changes that have occurred in the neighbourhood. In her eyes, the influx of wealth has created disharmony. They seem like ramblings, but it becomes hard to argue with her, as she is so mesmeric and unafraid to put her many opinions across.

Ferhani was introduced to Malika by his friend, writer Chawki Amari, who appears in the film. Amari wrote Route One, a travelogue in the form of a novel based on the characters that he met on the road. Ferhani doesn't try to fictionalise the characters he meets. He has made a road movie where, instead of going out on the road, the road comes to him. The truck stop is situated in the geographical centre of Algeria, which services people going down to Tamanrasset in the extreme south or up to Algiers in the far north. Malika is popular with truckers and tourists alike, and snippets of their stories are revealed as well.

But Malika remains a bit of a mystery. We know how she feels in the here and now, but how did she get here? There are little snippets of her biography that surface through natural conversation. Often, Ferhani sets up the camera to sit still and focus on Malika sitting on the solitary table with a customer, discussing whatever is on their minds. Sometimes a customer gets up (one even uses the window as a set decoration when telling a prison tale) or Malika goes off screen to make something. There is a sense of time standing still. However, this is an illusion, as so much is happening when it seems as though nothing is.

The beauty of the film is how it plays with preconceptions. It starts with an establishing shot of cars driving along Route One, with the vast expanse of the Sahara as the backdrop. Amid this landscape, like a mirage sitting in its isolated spot, is the truck stop. During the course of the movie, as we meet Malika and her customers – some more than once – it becomes apparent that the café is not isolated. There are plans to put a superstore in the vicinity, and that poses a threat to Malika’s livelihood. It suddenly dawns on us that Ferhani isn’t making a film about a quaint little café, but about globalisation. It’s a story about a changing world, told through the tales of peculiar characters going about their daily lives in a seemingly faraway place. Malika, far from being a funny old lady, might be one of the few sane people left, especially in comparison to some of the shop’s occidental characters.

143 Sahara Street is an Algerian-French-Qatari production staged by Algeria's Allers-Retours Films and France's Centrale électrique.

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