THE title of Papicha (Cert. 15) is Algerian slang for cool girls — something difficult to be in the late 1990s. Religious fundamentalists were disrupting life through car bombings and hijackings. Women were abused for not wearing a veil.
The director, Mounia Meddour, traces how a group of young female students react to developing pressures on their lifestyle. Chief of these is Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri), who has a passion and talent for dress design. Traditionalist women abduct the girls’ lecturer for speaking colonial French and intrude on Nedjma as she and her pals exult in wearing clothes that she has made.
Fashion politics is employed metaphorically. It gathers up all other discontents in a society torn between Westernisation and ancient Muslim values. Shot in cinéma vérité style, it has a documentary feel. Our hearts beat faster when the girls are stopped and searched or threatened. Islam’s emphasis on submission to Allah is abused by religious extremists who twist it into the total surrender of women.
Samira (Amira Hilda Douaouda), one of the students, is a devout Muslim. She dreads an arranged marriage with a husband who will shut her away. Nedjma is told by the man who supplies cloth that women should stay at home to be closer to Allah.
Nedjma’s rebellion takes several forms, whose most ingenious is turning haik-sized cloth (worn to cover women from head to toe) into a variety of designs for her projected fashion show. More forthright confrontations include breaking up with her boyfriend. He sees Algeria as a waiting room until there is a chance to better oneself abroad in less hostile circumstances. Nedjma loves her country and is determined to contend with those “ignorant people” who distort the faith that has shaped it. Allah the Merciful is being replaced by a god of the utmost severity.
Water plays a significant part in the film. Female agitators invade the students’ hall of residence demanding to know why the girls haven’t said their prayers. The girls say that they are not able to perform the necessary ablutions. The only bowl of water to hand, used for washing their private parts, is thrown over one of them. The following scene of ritual cleansing bears hallmarks of wudu, ablutions as a prelude to prayer. Earlier, a murdered woman is similarly prepared for her meeting with God. In both instances, it feels that it is the oppressors who need cleansing.
Papicha overwhelms the emotions with this nightmare world. It demonstrates little understanding, though, of what led to Algeria’s religious extremism. For that, we need to turn to Of Gods and Men (Arts, 3 December 2010), which depicted the murder of seven Cistercians there in 1996. Unlike that film, the new one has no grasp on the mechanics of forgiveness by either side. In that respect, it doesn’t do Islam, a religion abounding in acts of mercy, any favours.