By Nasu Nguyen.
Papicha takes place during the late 90s in Algeria, a time where the country was in a civil war against radical Islamic rebel groups in favor of an Islamic republic. We follow young student Nedjma and her journey along a very tumultuous period where she is forced to question her own dignity.
In response to the Islamic propaganda and rhetoric that she encounters, she decides to host a fashion show with her friends, mainly using material from haik, a traditional Maghreb garment for females made out of a single piece of fabric that covers the whole body, as a way to honor her culture while finding a way to express her and her friends’ own individuality.
Mounia Meddour pulls no punches with her first full length feature. This is a cold and heavy film that is not afraid to embody the horrors of political extremist groups and the power they had over anybody that disregards their ideologies. From the beginning, Meddour immediately places the audience up close and personal with our main characters and remains consistent on capturing a raw and intimate atmosphere with her style of camera work.
She captures the anxiety of certain moments with moving shots and fast paced edits. One of her biggest strengths as a director is getting the most out of their actors. There is a bold feminist energy that she cultivates with her female characters. I felt the chemistry between Nedjma and all of her friends whether it be them basking in the ocean waves of a beautiful beach or giving rap numbers while sewing fabric together. Although we do get strong development with Nedjma and her dynamic with her close friend Wassila, the other female characters could have used more fleshing out since Meddour introduced interesting aspects about them that I wanted to learn more about.
Lyna Khoudri is the standout performance of the entire film. She plays Nedjma with fierceness, compassion and vulnerability. I felt her commanding presence bleeds through the film with fiery intensity. Her co-star, Shirine Boutella, also gives a solid performance as Wassila, who is vibrant and perplexing in her own right. Both are magnetic on screen and they display a complex relationship together.
Moddour explores heavy themes about being a woman during a politically charged era in Algeria. In Papicha, we see Nedjma experience moments of oppression and subjugation as she is forced to live under strict circumstances that challenges her free will. She is a strong minded woman who strives to be liberated, yet feels the need to stay in the country because she doesn’t want to leave her friends and family.
Her dreams of being a fashion designer are at risk because of the regulations imposed by Islamic extremists, highlighting their profound and evil power. This can lead to jarring tonal shifts that can feel too sudden and made for shock value. However, unless I have experienced it first hand, it is not in my place to criticize whether these shifts were appropriate because they could have possibly been the reality for society living in that period. This was loosely inspired by true events, so I trust that Moddour is treating the events with the utmost respect.
The Algerian Civil War was a serious matter, and Meddour evokes the anger and hostility that our characters experience. Nonetheless, the denouement could have wrapped up tidier to provide more closure after a major event transpiring in the third act.
Papicha is an acrimonious look at socio-political tensions during the Algerian Civil War and how it primarily affected women and their place in society. While it’s not a perfect film, it solidly succeeds at telling a coming of age story of a young woman with passions that were considered taboo and her volition to express her creativity despite the repercussions.
Meddour proves to be a potent storyteller with her first film feature and I’m excited to see the next project she decides to tackle.
As well as being released on 7th August on digital platforms and as a virtual cinema release, PAPICHA will now physically be playing in a couple of cinemas from that date too, including the Curzon Bloomsbury.
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