Papicha (Cert 15)

VOD (Distributor: Various) Running Time: 108 minutes approx.

Release Date – August 7th

Gender equality might be making some headway towards being rebalanced here in the West but in other cultures, it remains a divisive and problematic issue, manifest as full on female oppression. The sad reality is, if the women did stand up for themselves, the consequences are far greater than an uneven pay scale.

Algiers in the late 1990’s, and the country is in the midst of a civil war following a gain in political traction of the insurgent Islamic Salvation Front. At a strict all-girls boarding school, 18 year-olds Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri) and Wassila (Shirine Boutella) sneak out to nightclubs to sell Nedjma’s homemade dresses to friends.

Nedjma wants to open her own fashion boutique but the increasing shift to strict Muslim rules see calls for all women to be clad in a hijab, which she actively opposes. Her elder sister Linda (Meriem Medjkrane) is a journalist, gunned down on her doorstep by a female ISF supporter. Sick of the growing oppression and intolerance shown, Nedjma decides to hold a fashion show of her designs to celebrate freedom.

Based on real events, Papicha (which means “cool” or trendy girl) is the bold debut film from Russian born writer-director Mounia Meddour, who lived in Algiers until she was 18, therefore knows whereof she speaks. Incorporating memories from her childhood, some facets were admittedly embellished – the shocking climax for example – in relating this stirring tale of feminism and pride.

With religious fundamentalism the main cause of friction, it should be noted this is not an open attack on Islam; most of the characters are Muslim – they just don’t subscribe to the extreme tenets of the ISF. If anything, the real targets are the hypocrites who betraying their own beliefs and yield to the extremists because it means a safer life.

Later in the film, this amazingly includes Wassila, having fallen for a boy converted by ISF propaganda, turning the formerly headstrong Wassila into a submissive possession. Having seen the tight bond she and Nedjma shared before – changing dowdy clothes for sexy dresses and doing their make-up in the back of an illegal taxi together – this is a sad sight to witness. However as an inevitable development, it is a plot device to underline the psychological power of religious indoctrination and the folly of falling in love in a society where patriarchal convention rules.

Most men come off bad in this film, from either singing from the chauvinistic Islam hymnbook or selling out of their principles. The storeowner Nedjma buys her material from suddenly replaces his colourful textiles for hijabs (and booming profits), whilst an ISF campaigner confronts Nedjma on a bus, demanding she wears a burqa as “it would look better than shroud”.

Fortunately, Nedjma’s boyfriend Mehdi (Yasin Houicha), isn’t like them, giving his full support to all she does. Except Mehdi wants to leave the country and expects Nedjma to join him.  In an interesting twist to her character, Nedjma doesn’t want to leave Algiers at all! Usually, the protagonist can’t wait to leave their homeland and is chastised for deserting their roots and culture, making Nedjma a nice change from the norm.

She also isn’t so militant that she feels the need to fight fire with fire and raise an army, or some form of political rally. Her fashion show is closer to the latter example however, as Nedjma is using material for making a haik (a traditional Maghreb garment) for her dresses, maybe in a naïve attempt to say “be devout but also be stylish and modern”, though this might not be the message received by the ISF.

Another of Nedjma’s friends, Samira (Amira Hilda Douaouda), is a conservative hijab-wearing girl but still with an eye for colour, but ends up a victim of her Muslim values in being betrothed to a boy of her brother’s choosing, only to fall pregnant to another boy. Samira sits somewhere in between the two ideals – wanting to honour her family and keep the peace yet yearns to be as vivacious and unfettered like Nedjma.

In tackling a combustible subject like this, the temptation is for the filmmaker to proffer a didactic narrative. Meddour shows the difficulty in addressing the levels of oppression in a balanced light and not deliberately galvanise audience reactions to fall in favour with Nedjma. A group of black burqa clad female ISF zealots accosting a lecturer for speaking French might resemble a Monty Python sketch but the terrifying subtext of their intent negates any comic overtones.

Aside from one impassioned retort from Nedjma in response to being told she should be  servile to men, there is no feminist rally cry or rousing William Wallace-esque demand for liberty. They aren’t necessary because we know what they are defying; the seething anger towards the bruised faces, unprovoked vandalism, and rampant sexism is palpable without words yet the response is non-violent for a reason.

Quite how Meddour manages to close the film with a tentative flicker of hope in the wake of a brutal final act is bewildering, though it may seem be a little incongruent juxtaposed with the bleakness that precedes it. What is evident is the confidence of her direction, knowing when to use the camera as a blunt observational instrument or to fill the screen with vibrant artistic flourishes and youthful energy.

Then there is Lyna Khoudri as Nedjma. In a career making performance, Khoudri dazzles with boundless energy, nuanced emotion, and above all, pure steel fortitude in making Nedjma a compelling and believable protagonist. There is a paradox in how she can also blend in with the other fine cast members and not stand out visually just for being the nominal lead.

Obviously, in an ideal world, a film like Papicha shouldn’t have to be made, but when the result is a powerful and moving entreaty against extremism, we are glad it was. A vital entry in the female-driven movie canon and an impressive debut for Meddour.

 

Rating – ****

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