- Emma Simmonds
- 3 August 2020
A wannabe fashion designer rages against oppressors in Mounia Meddour's powerful drama
Inspiring acts of defiance can take wildly different forms depending on the cultural context. Here, Moscow-born, Algeria-raised filmmaker Mounia Meddour, making her feature debut, puts fashion firmly at the centre of her story. Set in Algeria in 1997, during the civil war, and 'freely inspired by real events', Papicha finds the country under threat from Islamic fundamentalists looking to significantly curtail women's rights.
Aspiring designer Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri) is a furiously creative and entrepreneurial type, who takes dress orders out of a nightclub toilet with her best friend Wassila (Shirine Boutella). The 'papicha' of the title (slang for a hip and pretty girl), Nedjma attends a university in Algiers that's more like a prison; the female students are sedated with bromide and forbidden to leave, but she busts out anyway to ply her trade and shake off tension on the dancefloor, despite the danger of her transgressions.
A natural-born firebrand, though hardly thinking of herself as such, Nedjma rages against the increasing pressure to don the hijab and against those that brand women 'sluts' for not being covered from head to toe. Unlike many of her peers, she has no desire to flee Algiers, she would rather die resisting the tyranny and, with terrorist attacks on the increase, there is every chance of that happening. In the aftermath of personal devastation, and against the advice of many, Nedjma organises a fashion show.
It's a journey that's impossible not to become intensely emotionally invested in, and rising star Khoudri (soon to be seen in Wes Anderson's The French Dispatch) turns in a genuinely fierce performance, delivering her dialogue from the gut with the kind of fiery-eyed conviction that sees the film through some of its more hackneyed moments. The cinematography is appropriately fluid and interrogatory, taking us on a perilous, eventful ride with an impulsive protagonist. However, some of the stylings can be a touch on the nose: the use of slow-mo, for example, and some distractingly crass musical choices. The story is plenty powerful on its own.
The juxtaposition of relatable scenes of youthful hedonism – gambolling on the beach, preparing to party – and the intimidation and violence that ensues has the power to shock you to your core. But, if the societal picture is truly alarming, Meddour lets in some chinks of light – showing how small victories are still victories through a heroine who knows freedom is worth fighting for.
Available to watch on demand from Fri 7 Aug.