“Papicha is about the beauty of love and unity, in a world that is so hateful and divided.”
Papicha, Mounia Meddour’s debut feature, is a gut-punching true story set on the brink of the Algerian civil war. The story follows Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri), a university student hoping for a career in fashion in this harrowing time period. Beyond the conflict and terror of war, Nedjma and her friends are focused on putting on a fashion show, not only to distract themselves and peers from what is happening around them, but as a sign of resistance to those that are twisting their tradition and culture. Papicha doesn’t focus heavily on the socio-political side of things, and while this could be seen as a downfall, it is essential to the narrative that is being presented. Papicha is focused on showing the innocence and hopefulness of teenagers in a time where there was no hope to be found. It is concerned with outlining the joy of life and the somber reality that shadows over the make believe worlds that we create in our heads. Nedjma and her friends are choosing to live the life they want to live – a life that makes them happy, while choosing to ignore the consequences that could possibly come with it. The contrast between love and hate in Papicha is distinct – from the comfort and support of female friendship, to the disarray and panic of fire and bombs.
Image Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
Right from the opening scene, where Nedjma and her friend Wassila (Shirine Boutella) are getting ready for a night out, we hear a man discussing the war and conflict that is taking place in their country. The girls instinctively switch it over to upbeat music without even acknowledging what was being said. This automatically sets the tone for the entire film, establishing that all these girls want is to live a normal life in a barbaric world. The film as a whole follows these tonal shifts and what felt like a coming of age story slowly evolves into an unconventional horror story. While the changes in tone start as subtle and tolerable, they eventually end up developing rapidly. It leaves the characters as well as viewers with no time to adapt to their surroundings, leading to a sense of panic. The cinematography plays a major role in this – the constant random movement and close ups creates a sense of claustrophobia, which conveys Najima’s mindset through the screen. Due to this confined nature, we are just as trapped and on edge as the women experiencing this conflict, which makes the stakes feel a lot higher. Shallow focus is also used a lot throughout Papicha, which gives insight into how disconnected the girls are choosing to be to their current reality. The conflict is only addressed by them moderately throughout the film, as they are choosing to focus on something that brings them happiness, like a fashion show, rather than the suffering that is slowly spreading over their home like a virus. Meddour loors us in with the joys and comfort of life in the first half of the film through human affection and love, only to pull the rug out from under us and send us into a state of not knowing what is coming next.
Papicha presents a protagonist in Najima that is extremely easy to root for. She is a determined and strong minded woman in a society that is so set on her confinement, and her commitment to her own freedom is incredibly admirable. Lyna’s performance is outstanding – she perfectly embodies a character who is having the optimism sucked out of her with each waking moment, while having the strength to stick to her moral compass throughout.
Papicha is a story not only about the power of resistance, but also about the power of propaganda and how it can shape people into a role that they were never meant to play. It is a story about love and unity, in a world that is so hateful and divided. While Papicha does have its narrative blank spots, it is undeniably a heartwarming story that leaves you feeling just as moved as the characters you just watched on screen.
Director: Mounia Meddour
Producer: Xaiver Gens, Vincent Roget, Genevieve Lemal, Musapha Matoub, Gregoire Gensolen, Patrick Andre, Victorien Vaney, Mounia Meddour and Belkacem Hadjadj
Cast: Lyna Khoudri, Shirine Boutella,Yasin Houicha, Marwan Zeghbib and Amira Hilda Douaouda