Words by Poppy Hunt
A woman’s right to self-expression and to be who she wants to be is something that’s so often overlooked by those who’ve only ever known this freedom. Mounia Meddour’s ‘Papicha’ explores ideas of ownership, censorship and religious fundamentalism, all while maintaining likeable and relatable characters to its viewers.
TW: mentions of sexual assault
Set in Algiers in the 1990s, when the government fought a civil war against an Islamic insurgency, ‘Papicha’ opens with university students Nedjima (Lyma Khoudri) and Wassila (Shirine Boutella) in the back of an illegal taxi, changing and doing their makeup as they make their way to an underground night club. The car gets stopped at a checkpoint by a group of militants with guns, who intimidate the girls with bright flashlights while demanding the driver get out and open the boot. When the girls get to the nightclub, they meet their friends in the bathroom. We learn that she is a fashion designer who makes clothes that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them. She takes down measurements for another woman who wants a dress, while two women emerge from bathroom stalls in her creations. The two start playfully hurling insults at each other, and they end with a dance-off. The whole scene is comfortingly reminiscent of the New York Ballroom scene, which gained popularity in the 1980s and is a key part of queer culture.
When the girls’ driver doesn’t show up to pick them up, they hitch a lift from two men whose attention they caught earlier on in the night, to which Nedjima is dubious. When they get home, she is furious at Islamist posters, which demand that women wear abayas and hijabs, plastered on the side of her university dormitory, and in a rage she and Wassila graffiti over them in protest. A group of women veiled in black storm into her French classroom, reprimanding the female students for being there and the lecturer for teaching them. Things take a turn for the worst when Nedjima’s sister is killed by an Islamic woman that followed her to her mother’s house. From here, we see Nedjima’s life slowly ascend into chaos as religious ideology takes over. Nedjima is scrubbing a haik (a traditional Algerian garment) clean of her sister’s blood when she gets the idea to create her next fashion collection using haik materials and traditional hand-folding methods. She gathers some beetroot from an allotment and dyes the material a bright red, symbolic of her sister’s blood.
As tensions rise with the bombing of a local university library and the building of a wall around Nedjima’s dormitory, she grows even more determined to combat the extremism and decides to put on a fashion show. We follow her journey as she puts it together, making the garments and gathering friends to model. Alongside this, I can’t help but notice the growing amount of sexual harassment that is directed towards Nedjima, provoked by her decision not to wear a haik. She is followed down an alley one day, the next she is followed through the village by a man insistent to catch her attention, whilst onlookers laugh about the situation and do nothing to intervene. The gatekeeper to her dormitory, who once took cash bribes to let Nedjima and her friends inside the building after hours, now insists that her only wants Nedjima to “be nice” to him. One night, when Nedjima is desperate to get into her building, he takes advantage of her frantic state and attempts to rape her. These situations seem eerily similar to things that are said and done to women now, forcing us to police what we wear to avoid confrontation.
The title of the film, “Papicha”, which is Algerian slang for “cool rebellious girl” seems perfectly fitting for Nedjima and her friends. Though some more than others, each and every woman shows a hint of rebellion which flourishes into a thrilling, yet heartwarming, tale of female resistance, sisterhood and power.