It’s 1997 and the Algerian Civil War is raging. But to 18-year-old university student Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri), there are far more important matters at hand—like having a good time with her friends, designing really great clothes, and just generally enjoying the life of a college student (“Papicha” means “cool girl” in Algerian slang). She and her friends dress in revealing Western clothes, wear makeup, smoke cigarettes, and go to clubs, all of which are totally normal activities for college students—at least as long as war and the rise of fundamentalism don’t take away those freedoms.
It’s no accident that Nedjima has a passion for fashion, because she’s all about enjoying being young—living freely and boldly and wearing clothes that make her feel good. She knows the rules, but also how to get around them—when Nedjima and her best friend Wassila (Shirine Boutella) sneak out of their dorm, they change into Western clothes and apply makeup in a cab on route to a party, then hastily don headscarves when stopped at a checkpoint. But even the university is not a safe haven, as packs of black-robed women and arrogant young men regularly appear to denounce what they consider to be corrupt Western influence, which stretches from matters of dress to the use of so-called foreign languages (Algeria was a French colony, so many educated Algerians speak French).
As the fundamentalist influence encroaches more and more on student life—hijabs become mandatory, political posters are plastered all over the school walls—Nedjima and her friends must adapt. Still, she’s not ready to fold her hand just yet, and fights back in the way she knows best—by convincing the school director to allow her to stage a fashion show within the school, with only females present.
The conclusion of Papicha has been criticized for being melodramatic, but worse things have happened in reality than what is shown in this film, so it doesn’t seem out of line to me, particularly given the setting and context. I suspect the people making that charge are primarily those who are so privileged, through the accident of their birth and/or their current situation, that they can’t imagine such a thing happening. That is a pity, because viewing films from cultures other than your own is a real chance to learn more about the world while also cultivating your ability to understand and empathize with characters whose lives are quite different from your own. But the viewer has to choose to make that effort, and some people just won’t bother.
Papicha is the first feature film directed by Mounia Meddour, who also wrote the screenplay in the collaboration Fadette Drouard. She’s no stranger to the threat of fundamentalism—even after her family moved to France, her father, the Algerian film director Azzedine Meddour, continued to receive death threats related to his work. Before directing Papicha, she trained in documentary filmmaking and made two feature-length documentaries, a background you can feel in her decision to ground the lives of her characters in their material living circumstances. Beautiful cinematography by Léo Lefèvre underlines Nedjima’s creativity, in particular her eye for color in the fabrics she selects (and sometimes dyes herself), and the costumes by Catherine Cosme will convince you that Nedjima truly has a talent for fashion design. | Sarah Boslaugh
Papicha is distributed on DVD by Icarus Films and is available for virtual cinema bookings through Distrib Films US. There are no extras on the disc other than information about Icarus Films and Distrib Films US, and a catalogue of films available from Icarus is included in the DVD jacket.
Papicha is also part of the 2020 Saint Louis International Film Festival, running from Nov. 5 through Nov. 22. Further information is available from the SLIFF web site.