Papicha

Mounia Meddour, Algeria/France, 2019

This is the story of a strident young woman caught up in a society that is starting to turn against the likes of her.

We are in Algiers at the beginning of the Algerian Civil War in 1997, and the small all-girl’s college that our protagonist Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri) attends is a microcosm of what’s happening in the country at large. Islamic extremism is growing in influence, particularly its insistence (by some women too) that women shroud themselves in shapeless black robes and stay at home.

Twenty-year-old Nedjma designs and makes dresses, likes to go out and party, and is an assertive young woman not afraid to disagree with what she sees as wrong. So these are not good times for her and her small group of friends – everything bad that could happen to them does. But they stick together. It’s a beautiful illustration of female solidarity and support networks.

However, while I’ve no doubt the kind of things portrayed in this film happened (and probably still do), the characters on the whole do feel a bit like a composite, a means to illustrate a point. Apart from Nedjma herself, that is. She is feisty and ambitious and, due to tragic events, grows up fast. She starts as a baby-faced, shiny-dress disco queen, not really taking it seriously. Events solidify her anger and her resolve to act according to her beliefs. I can’t imagine having to deal with a world like that at that age.

I particularly loved the use of fabric in the film. Both what it means symbolically – Nedjma designs sexy dresses out of the material intended to be used to cover and hide women – and physically – large sheets blowing in the wind, how it’s tucked, and folded, lovingly handled. How it caresses our bodies.

Loving human relationships stand strong against a harsh political backdrop, but equally this film is a celebration of fabric and the old, old art of clothing ourselves. Which in itself says something about what it means to be human: we need beauty as well as function.

Excitingly, I saw this in the cinema! Second visit since the pandemic started. Even though it was a Tuesday afternoon in August, there were more people there than the last time I went. It was really comforting to be in the (air-conditioned!) enveloping darkness.

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