Papicha, Made in France

Mateusz Tarwacki
4 min readOct 15, 2019

The problem with films from the Middle East or Africa — I mean, of course, those that hit international cinemas and big festivals[1] — is that in most cases is hard to say that these films actually came from there. Is it appropriate to speak of the film “from there” in the case where the only thing that connects the alleged origin of the film with the place or environment it talks about is the name of the creator, who has been in exile for a long time?

The films I mean here are international productions, with a big budgets, good technical performances and a good promotion. I don’t want to be misunderstood. Talking about problems of the so called third world or about poverty, emigration or women’s rights in Arab countries is something extremely important, but I will never agree to Americanisation of cinema that has not even had a chance to shape itself yet.

Mouni Meddour’s Papicha is such a movie. Superficially, one cannot find any mistakes: the technical performance, image and sound quality, fact-based script or theme — inhumanly timed women in Algeria of 1997, when religious fundamentalism was becoming stronger — are pretty solid. But exactly this perfection is something that completely breaks the film’s credibility. The heroines of Papicha are not only written as in the American film, but also were filmed as so.

Young Nedjma, a student of French philology at the Women’s University of Algiers, dreams of becoming a fashion designer. Obviously, the obstacle is the growing strength of fundamentalists, who are starting to boldly limit women’s rights, lock them in their homes and take away their joy of choosing clothing, etc. Despite the possibility of emigrating abroad, to France, Nedjma prefers to stay in her country and fight with dangerous conservatives with means available to her — she intends to organize an university’s fashion show consisting of creations made from chadors.

Persistence, determination, courage — these are the virtues with which the hero in American cinema will always go far. Papicha is written in the very same language. Nedjma responds almost aggressively to her boyfriend’s suggestion to go to France, wanting to fight for her rights at home — unknowingly imitating the neoliberal ideology: the world needs to be changed on the spot, refugees can deal with their problems at home and it is better for all. It can be quickly guessed that even the undoubted tragedy of the heroine depicted in the film (cruel violence, death of women, observing fundamentalists gradually limiting freedom, etc.) is not relieved at all by the struggle for real freedom, but the struggle for the fulfillment of individual dreams. This is a priority in Meddour’s movie — the individual success of the heroine and not a fight for women’s rights at all.

This is the story that is served by the director, who has been living abroad in France since she was 18 years old. This is definitely not the Algerian women’s view of the problem, and it is even hard for me to believe that Meddour herself, who grew up in Algeria at that time and abandoned her homeland, thinks in similar categories. I prefer to think that when “converting” to the West, she slowly began to lose her local perspective and took on a liberal, elitist, rich man’s approach of ignoring the Other’s cry: “Please, let me in, because in my home only death awaits me”.

We get to the heart of the problem. I have long dreamed of a movie that would really be shot by someone “from there”. By someone who doesn’t have access to a lot of capital. By someone who lives the real problems, not memories and imaginary ideas. By someone who feels and sees the world in a different way than Europeans or Americans. By someone whose cultural difference would be a real clash with the Other, not a stupid display of possibilities and quality of art that meets international requirements.

[1] For example: Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki (2018) or Nadine Labaki’s Cafarnaúm (2018). Israeli, Turkish and Iranian cinema are somehow doing well, they were able to develop their own recognizable style, although i.e. Asghar Farhadi evidently makes films “for the West”, calculated for the reception at large festivals. And he is not the only one, but that is a topic for another text.

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Mateusz Tarwacki

Born 1993. Film critic, holds MA from University of Warsaw. He’s interested in neomodernist, socially engaged and female cinema. Writes a blog: