Papicha sells her handmade dresses in nightclub toilets. She has to. But it needs to remain a secret. In Algiers, in the late 90s, being a woman is hard. In this predominantly Muslim country, women lead a circumscribed existence: covered up, staying at home, obeying their husbands, fathers and brothers. So, making haute couture doesn’t quite fit the mould.
But Papicha is a determined soul. Unlike most of her contemporaries who want to flee Algeria’s repressive and increasingly dangerous atmosphere, she wants to stay. Papicha is a student at a French-speaking university, and she and her friends escape most nights. They go to nightclubs and dress up in Papicha’s newest creations. Their school is both liberal and repressive – it’s surrounded by a wall, has a leering watchman and the girls are given bromide in their milk to lessen their “arousals”.
In the background, Islamic terrorists explode bombs. Papicha is angered by threatening posters that appear all over the city and call for women to cover up. Women in full black burqas keep bursting in on Papicha and her school-friends, calling them sluts. In between, Papicha begins a relationship with Mehdi, keeping quiet that she is a university student as they are viewed with contempt by most men.
What begins as a rather feel-good film about female empowerment, grows increasingly dark, dangerous and uncertain. Papicha is beset on all sides by those that are eager to decide what is best for her, and happy to hurt her if she demurs. The movie nicely conveys the weight of society, family and history that presses on Papicha. In a nice scene where her mother explains how to wear a haik, this delicately shows the complicated weight that religious clothing carries.
One comes out of Papicha disliking men – there’s not a good one in here – and respecting the protagonist. This is a straightforward narrative about a straightforward girl living in a complicated society. Papicha wants to make dresses and won’t take no for an answer. In this lively and focused feature, it is clear who is right and who is wrong.
Papicha is released digitally on demand on 7th August 2020.
Watch the trailer for Papicha here: