The title is Algerian slang for “cool girl” or “rebel girl” and Algerian film-maker Mounia Meddour brings a lot of empowering energy to this autobiographical debut feature, set in the 1990s during her country’s civil war, between government and Islamist militants. It is a sufficiently controversial subject for the film to be denied a release in Algeria last year, although it was the country’s entry for best foreign film Oscar, not nominated but selected for the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes and winning two French Césars.
Meddour throws a lot into the mix – political thriller, soap opera, melodrama, tragedy – and it’s a bit tonally uncertain. The brushstrokes are broad, but the movie has real energy (it reminded me a little of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, from 2014) and an urgent contemporary theme.
The setting is a university campus in Algiers, where there is still – notionally – freedom of thought and expression. Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri), nicknamed Papicha, is a smart student majoring in fashion who sneaks out of her dorm with her mate Wassila (Shirine Boutella), avoiding the gun-toting zealots, to go dancing in a western-style nightclub where she also has a side-hustle in the ladies’ room selling dresses she has made. But the forces of misogyny and religious extremism are closing in.
The authorities are spiking the milk served in the girls’ university canteen with bromide, a dangerous chemical intended to suppress their “desires”, and the Islamist zealots – drunk on bullying and power – are telling the women to cover up and clamping down on lecturers who speak French: a cadre of extremists are shown disrupting a lecture on the pluralist thinker Albert Jacquard.
Nedjma has a heroically defiant idea: she will stage a fashion show with new designs and colours for the traditional women’s wrap or haik, but she is on a collision course with those who think she is on the wrong side of Algerian history. There is a scattershot emotional rhetoric here – but also idealism, and emotional force.
• Papicha is on digital platforms from 7 August.
Source: The Guardian