The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Cinema/VOD] - PAPICHA | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Cinema/VOD] - PAPICHA

papicha review
Amid the Algerian civil war, a young fashion student attempts to enjoy life on her own terms.

Review by Benjamin Poole

Directed by: Mounia Meddour

Starring: Lyna Khoudri, Shirine Boutella, Amira Hilda Douaouda, Yasin Houicha

papicha poster

What with the shops shutting at the precise moment when a spring wardrobe should evolve into your summer get up, lockdown was particularly hard on fashionistas. Online shopping is just not the same experience: as a rabid clothes horse, I would dream of wandering the aisles of H&M, the jumble sale piles of Primark, nosing in the charity shops on the off chance. Clothes should not necessarily be expensive - only the most insecure sort of person would expect you to be impressed by a label - but nonetheless outfits should be thought out, chosen and pieced together with care. After all, you’re the one wearing the clothes, and you should feel comfortable in apparel that suits and even consolidates who you are.

papicha review

The sheer excitement of dressing up is enough under ordinary circumstances, but imagine the thrill of sneaking out of a draconian all-female boarding school in mid-90s civil war torn Algiers with your best friend, bundling yourself into the back of an illegal taxi wherein you discard your khimar, expertly apply some slap, and wriggle into your glad rags. If you are fortunate enough to avoid the police stops, you make it to the club, wherein you sell clothes which you have made to similarly liberal minded women, before dancing the night away to Technotronic. This is how Mounia Meddour’s Papicha opens, with fashion students Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri) and Wassila (Shirine Boutella) risking life, limb and reputation for their (perhaps naïve) belief in personal freedoms against the increasing fascism of their social context.

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Summerland ]

Early in the 1990s, the Islamic Salvation Front, a religious conservative party, gained traction in Algeria, apparently due to voter apathy with the incumbent government (sound familiar?). The army, worried about an eventual ISF majority in the 1992 elections, decided to halt the democratic process. This resulted in violent hostilities for the next decade. A title card states that Papicha is ‘freely inspired by real events’, and as Nedjma’s social circle and life are energetically portrayed (think the infectious energy of a good teen drama: the word ‘papicha’ means, excellently, ‘cool girl’), the troubles are evident just off frame: news reports on the television, the aftermath of a video library bombing.

papicha review

Despite the encroaching discontent, Nedjma (a luminous performance from Khoudri, an ascendant star who will feature in the next Wes Anderson film: frankly, she’s too good an actor for his shop worn cutesy wutesy schtick) carries on, even when a bunch of female ISF supporters forcefully hijack a lecture protesting the school’s teaching of a ‘foreign tongue’ (French). Nedjma stands up to the throng, displaying the same spikey attitude which sees her cheeking her teachers and glibly pontificating to her friends. What an exciting and convincing character: remember being so young that you took it for granted the bad things would never affect you, that you were immortal? Sadly, however, at the end of the third act, Nedjma (and the audience) are in for a shock when sudden tragedy strikes...

[ READ MORE: New Release Review - Proxima ]

Following the incident, the brilliantly stubborn Nedjma resolves to create a fashion show built around the haik, a traditional female garment which has become a major cause of social contention. ISF flyers exhort women to ‘cover up’, and a man on the bus tells Nedjma to don a hijab or the next thing she’ll be seen in is a shroud (of all relatively minor oppressions, a man commenting upon what a woman wears is perhaps the most irksome). Clothing is politicised within this diegesis, a theme which the film leans into with such scenes as Nedjma’s mum demonstrating how she would use her haik to shield the guns which she would smuggle for freedom fighters. With such ideological material front and centre, there is a danger that a film like Papicha could slip into didactic polemicising, rather than absorbing (and, therefore, more affecting) drama. Instead, the sequences wherein Meddour depicts Nedjma and her friends playing off each other as they discuss fashion, boys and their future, are deeply affecting. The style of the film is striking too, with the opening’s European noir of deep blues and lipstick reds standing out against fathomless shadow; this vivid pantone bleeds out to handheld verité as Nedjma’s hope and innocence is further eroded by circumstance.

papicha review

In one such scene of female friendship, Scheherazade is pointedly mentioned: the original bright and brilliant female challenger to male oppression within Middle Eastern art. Like that wily bard, Meddour weaves a story of resilience and female ingenuity. However, unlike the largely simpatico endings of the One Thousand and One Nights, Papicha offers no such clean resolutions, and Nedjma’s narrative ends in a bittersweet manner which is as frustrating as it is necessary.

Papicha is in UK cinemas and on VOD from August 7th.

2020 movie reviews