Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Mar 06, 2020 2:41 pm 
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An artistic young woman's risky revolt against Islamic fanaticism in 1990'S Algeria

Filmmaker Mounia Meddour's spirited, explosive, poetic first feature focuses on Algeria in the 1990's, known as the "Black Decade." This is a time when a civil war was going on and the spirit of Islamic fundamentalism was exerting a repressive influence on young women, and everyone else. There were random bombings and shootings and Taliban-like warning issued all the time. Papicha is an Algerian word that refers to a funny, attractive, liberated young woman. At the center of the film are four or five of these, all great friends, at the university, pretty, vibrant women who smoke, dress informally, go swimming in the sea, and generally have a wild time. They are being watched all the time by the self-appointed police of fundamentalist Muslim correctness. Several young men are attracted to the women, but within the social context this attraction is almost doomed to come to grief. There is also an attempted rape and an unwanted pregnancy.

The protagonist, Nedjma (Lyna Khudri) is bound from the start, however, to exert her independence and express her talent as a designer of creative, individualistic dress designs. A series of violent attacks by the Islamic fanatics, particularly a gang of menacing women in black, including the murder of a close friend called Linda (Meriem Medjkrane), terrorizes the "papicha" gang. But that only strengthens Nedjima in her resolve to stage a provocative fashion show or défilé in the dining hall of the university on a Friday (a day when it's forbidden for women to congregate). Notices have been telling women they must wear the haik or traditional all-over body cover cloth (something like the Egyptian miyayya). This gives Nedjima the inspiration of making her défilé be a a series of radical secular variations of the haik, designs revealing flesh but with a hood that the models throw back.

The scenes throughout this lively and very feminine film are so explosive and energetic they somehow overwhelmed my sense of a narrative; I felt exhausted at the end, and unfulfilled, though the dreamy, high-speed action among the young women in the first third and the propulsive, giddy way it's followed by the camera, remained a pleasant memory.

Opinions are that adventurous camerawork, part expressionism, part poetic swoon, and vibrant mostly female leads (who seem 200% committed to their roles) help compensate for a script that runs into trouble in the third act when, after the last most violent climax, the filmmaker doesn't seem to know where to end and there are a series of anticlimaxes.

The way the young women (and the young men who're interested in them) slide back and forth from French to Algerian Arabic is very expressive of their slippery, changing identities. The fundamentalists object vocally, among other things, to their speaking French, the "foreign," "European," colonial language. But for the women French may express culture, fashion, freedom, class, not to mention an escape from repressive interpretations of Islam. But they must use Arabic for daily contact with tradesmen and to talk about the most intimate things. To see French so long after the Algerian revolution of the Sixties still so important for some is enlightening.

Director Mounia Meddour's mother is Russian and she was born in Moscow. Her father was Algerian director Azzedine Meddour, who died in 2000. Meddour received her audiovidual and cinematic training in France, preparing at the CEFPF (European Training Center for Film Production). She began with documentaries and shorts, then moved on to fiction.

Papicha, 108 mins., in French and Arabic, debuted at Cannes May 2019 in the Un Certain Regard section, and it has had seven other international festival appearances. The French theatrical release was on Oct. 9, 2019, with a moderately favorable response (AlloCiné press 3.7 of 74%) and winning two Césars, for production design and Most Promising Female Newcomer (Meilleur Espoir Féminin) to lead actress Lyna Khudri. Papicha will be a Distrib release in the US.

Rendez-Vous with French Cinema
Friday, March 6, 1:45pm
Thursday, March 12, 6:15pm

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