Gender Subversion: Our Review of ‘Papicha’

Gender Subversion: Our Review of ‘Papicha’

One person can spark change, no matter how little. Mounia Meddour’s debut feature Papicha is about one of those people, Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri). She seems, at first, like every other clubber but she runs a business within those clubs. She and a friend Wassila (Shirine Boutlla) provide her fellow female clubbers with dresses. It is a strange set-up, something that she and the audience remembers when she must sneak back into her university. There, some of the students, like her roommate Samira (Amira Hilda Douaouda), are mildly conservative. This is something she and we expect in 1990s Algeria. That country is undergoing changes. She and we can see the posters telling women to wear hijabs. The hijab turns from a suggestion into something that fundamentalist groups enforce.

But Nedjma digs her heels in and decides to mount a fashion show and become a real designer. Women are strong, friendly, and smart, and those qualities shine in Papicha. Papicha is Algerian slang for a hip girl, but this feature shows that Nedjma is more than that. There are scenes here where Nedjma has some home time and her mother cooks for her. This feature has a lot of shots of women’s hands, whether it is Nejdma’s mother cooking her Nedjma herself as she works on a dress. These close-ups show how much the feature values a woman’s work, that work expressing a woman’s love for other women as much as it is for duty. And for such a fast-paced feature, paying attention to those details make us savor those bonding moments between these characters.

This feature, thus, implies that those bonding moments do not last. A woman shoots and kills Nedjma’s sister Linda (Meriem Medjkrane). That is a plot point that makes her more resolute, continuing the work for women who do not survive religious purges. This shows that Meddour does not make the mistake of assigning character traits depending on their gender. That’s a mistake even better features make. Nedjma and her classmates are feminists, but some of the characters pushing fundamentalist ideas of Nedjma are women. The men, on the other hand, belong to a spectrum. On one side are the protectors, in the middle are the ‘protectors,’ and on the other side are just dirt bags. Some of those ‘protectors’, regardless of gender, tell Nedjma that leaving Algeria is an option, which she stubbornly doesn’t want to do.

Meddour makes strong stances here, and Khoudri, a daughter of immigrants, makes that stance complex. She writes Nedjma as a genius who happens to be a woman, a trope in cinema that has been surging for the past two decades. Her take on that trope, as well as the trope itself, is fascinating. That said, she makes Nedjma’s breakdowns as something that’s comping from a purely social force as opposed to something both social and psychological. And there are flaws when the screen play tackles the world around her. Most historians gloss over 1990 in Algerian history since it is a whole two years since a more eventful civil war. Sure, some years have impact that’s more micro than macro. And again, film features are not history lessons. But it depicts the rise of Islamic fundamentalism as the only political movement in Algeria at the time.

The film also does not add a lot of nuance to the hijab debate. Choosing this snapshot of history also magnifies it for a global audience. Those audiences might use this and only this as their reference to Algerian history. The French funding also makes some of its positions suspect. Also, other critics have also pointed out something that happens in the third act, writing about how that plot point is manipulative and strains credulity. That plot point to me actually feels like a brutal wake-up call that feels like it happened in real life. Lesser films would have given its protagonist successes they do not earn, and Meddour’s writing shows that she does not compromise. It’s a gutsy move for a film with a G rating. And after all of that, if Nedjma is the only person resisting fundamentalism, I’m on her side.

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While Paolo Kagaoan is not taking long walks in shrubbed areas, he occasionally watch movies and write about them. His credentials are as follows: he has a double major in English and Art History. This means that, for example, he will gush at the art direction in the Amityville house and will want to live there, which is a terrible idea because that house has ghosts. Follow him @paolokagaoan on Instagram but not while you're working.
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