Papicha is a stunning female-centred drama freely inspired, its director Mounia Meddour says, by real events in Algeria in the 1990s.
Girlhoodby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Papicha is urgently shot like a cross between an emotional drama and a fascinating documentary. Algeria is in the throes of civil war. There’s danger from random bomb explosions in Algiers: Islamic fundamentalists are changing a previously liberal society.
‘Papicha’ means ‘funny, attractive, liberated young woman’ – that’s Ndjma (Lyna Khoudr). She and her friend Wassila (Shirine Boutella) are spirited students, living in university halls, sharing their dorm with religiously observant Samira (Amira Hilda Douaouda) and lively Kahina (Zahra Medel Doumandji), whose ambition is to emigrate to Canada. Some young men and women feel their only hope for the future is to leave Algeria – the country is described as a big waiting room – but Ndjma, perhaps blinkered about what’s going on around her, wants to stay.
At first, the two fun-loving friends can escape from their residence at night and change into sparkly dresses in the back of an illegal taxi to go dancing in a club, though only to have to quickly cover up in all-encompassing abayas when stopped by armed militia at a road block.
There’s wonderful closeness between all the girls: each has a distinct personality. They support each other through boyfriend trouble, the everyday male harassment they have to endure, and they joke and romp together in the sea in a scene reminiscent of a similar group in Mustang.
But their liberation can’t last: Islamist society is relentlessly closing in on them. Posters threatening women who don’t wear a hijab are posted in the university and patrols of black-clad fundamentalist women disrupt lectures they disapprove of. Women’s freedom to wear what they please and go where they like grows more and more restricted every day. Walls are going up, literally and metaphorically.
Nedjma, already an outspoken feminist, is changed by a sudden tragic event. She designs, makes and sells dresses to her fellow students. Now the event inspires her to create a fashion show entirely based on clothes made from the haik, the traditional large square of material worn to cover up the female form. As well as its function as a garment, it was the symbol of the national Algerian resistance against French colonial policy. Women hid the fighters’ weapons in these coveralls. Symbolically, using the haik is an interesting way to show that women have always resisted alongside men in the fight against colonialism or terrorism. It’s a striking metaphor central to the film, showing her subverting tradition to create resistance and make change.
But in a society that has altered so radically that it’s becoming a prison, the fashion show incites shocking opposition: and it’s a sin for women to congregate on a Friday. In this striking roller-coaster of a first film that burns so powerfully with energy, anger and hurt, what survives is female solidarity.
Papicha premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was Algeria’s entry for the Foreign Film Oscars even though it was banned in Algeria. It is released on VOD on 7 August 2020 in the UK.