Thursday, November 21, 2019

Papicha: Girls Just Want to Have Fun and Freedom in Algeria

By José Alberto Hermosillo
Papicha poster
COLCOA REVIEW:  Vibrant and compelling, “Papicha” is a must-see drama with social content. The coming-of-age story is about the courageous young Muslim women claiming their place and time in a world of inequalities.

During the “black decade” of the 1990s, an oppressive system doomed women’s rights in Algeria. The Civil War in the African country brought them back to obscurantism. Director Mounia Meddour decided to move from making documentaries to direct her first feature loosely-based on her personal experiences around those tumultuous 
years in college.
Mounia Meddour director of  Papicha
Mounia Meddour, "Papicha" director at COLCOA.
Photo José Alberto Hermosillo. Festival in LA ©2019

When Meddour was a journalism student, she saw first-hand the uprising in her nation-state. Many wanted to leave - others, the daring ones who had to stay, experienced religious, political, and physical repression by the conservative system in power.

According to the director, during those dark times, men were awful. Also, ultra-conservative women were making religious propaganda in the streets. They were interrupting classes, attacking broad-minded girls by going to their houses and threatening them, violating their intimacy – forcing them to wear hijabs all the time.

In Meddour’s intimate story, the hero is a young woman named Nedjma “Papicha,” played by Lyna Khoudri, winner of the Best Actress Venice Horizons award for the 2017 film “The Blessed.” 
Papicha, Jour 2 Fete ©2019
Lyna Khoudri’s performance in "Papicha" is fiercely virtuous! She plays the extraordinary, determined, young Nedjma Papicha exquisitely.

At that age, female students want to dress up nicely, go out to the clubs, date, and have fun at the disco, like any other woman in the world.
Papicha, Jour 2 Fete ©2019
While waiting for her Canadian Visa to leave the country, Nedjma's dreams cannot be placed on hold. As a serious design student, she won’t give up her fashion show so easily but cannot obtain fine fabrics. She improvises dresses with bargain fabrics to come up with original designs that will wow everyone. The other young women students from various fields of study join her on the runway show as an act of rebellion in their struggle for freedom.

The film does not show the authorities often, but they are a present dark force that moves in the shadows, repressing those who dare to be different.
Papicha, Jour 2 Fete ©2019

The project took five years to make and many script drafts. The female director expressed that “Papicha” was hard to put together. For the authorities, the subject matter of the film is still a sensitive topic. Once she got financing, Meddour was able to show her country’s reality accurately and vividly, thanks to her background as a documentarian.

The opposition against women's liberation in Algeria has never seen so vividly and realistically until “Papicha.”

Meddour started production with mostly non-professional actors in the cast. The most challenging task in the making of the project was to edit the film because, in every take, actors had different dialogs. The director gave the actors plenty of freedom to improvise on the set.

The actresses had plenty of time to rehearse. They lived together in the same house for a week before filming. Their natural performances enlighten the screen, making out of “Papicha,” a delightful movie to watch.

Other contemporary films dramatize the women’s struggle for emancipation in the Middle East, such as this year’s Cannes Grand Prix winner “Atlantics.” Also, “Adam,” a cathartic film about women who want to live free from old biases. Another relevant project about sexual repression in Morocco is “Much Loved,” directed by Nabil Ayouch in 2015. “Mustang,” the French-Turkish Oscar nominee ends up in tragedy over women’s awaking. “Divines,” made in France, shows a young woman of color fighting for a chance to survive in a violent city. 

The Afghan feature “Hava, Maryam, Ayesha” relates three feminist stories about their struggles dealing with chauvinistic men in their culture. Finally, the Canadian production “Antigone,” the story of a young African/Muslim immigrant struggling in Quebec's courts to keep her family together and out of trouble.

In many Muslim countries, men use religion as a form of oppression to submit women for their benefit. Women’s struggle in Algerian society gets a proper acknowledgment through this brave piece. Part of the Un Certain Regard competition at Cannes 2019, “Papicha” was also selected as the Official Algerian submission for Best International Film at the 92nd Academy Awards.

Daring and splendid, “Papicha” responds to the imperative necessity of World Cinema serving as a tool in the women’s fight for equal rights.

Papicha director at the DGA
Mounia Meddour, "Papicha" director at COLCOA. 
Photo José Alberto Hermosillo. Festival in LA ©2019
Festival in LA ©2019

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