Interview with PAPICHA Director Mounia Meddour

Women In Film spoke with Mounia Meddour, director of PAPICHA, at the beginning of awards season. The film—Meddour’s directorial debut—was screened at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival in the Un Certain Regard category, and was selected as Algeria’s official submission for the Best International Feature Film category at the 92nd Academy Awards.

Algeria, 1990s.
Nedjma, an 18 year-old student passionate about fashion design refuses to let the tragic events of the Algerian Civil War to keep her from experiencing a normal life and going out at night with her friend Wassila. As the social climate becomes more conservative, she rejects the new bans set by the radicals and decides to fight for her freedom and independence by putting up a fashion show.

Women In Film: Could you talk about how your experience as a documentary filmmaker helped you on a narrative project like PAPICHA, and how you use those skills from documentary on a film like this?

Mounia Meddour: For me, it was very, very important to start with documentary, and tdocumentary helped me a lot on PAPICHA. I’ll start with the script, because writing the script was very, very long–but in the script is all the details. And this is heritage from the documentary. This is reality, for authenticity, details, for everything that is connected with the human being.

This is really something from documentary. The point of view, too:  because in documentary you can shoot a lot of interviews, but what is important is how you will tell this story. Everyone can tell the story, but what is important is you how you will tell this story. What is the point of view? And for me, this is [what I gained] from documentary when I started PAPICHA. For me, it was very important to find the first thing, which is: how we tell this story. From whom? From which point of view? And for me, it was very clear that [the point of view] is from this young woman, because it was me in the past.

For me, what was important is human beings: how we can express–not to play too much, you know, like in fiction–but to find something very realistic and very “popular,” because we speak about social class, which is very populist. And I think the most important thing for me is the adaptation. I shot this movie in five weeks, which is very, very short. Especially being in a country where there is no cinematography, and the actors were not professionals. I find ways, because I work with them in documentaries, to be with these younger actors and to try to adapt my movie to  how they play.

I mean, we tried improvisations. A lot of them were very interesting. And we recorded all that. When we got to the editing, we found a lot of things that were very natural. And I think it’s because we had to record everything.

WIF: Can you talk about your experience being a female filmmaker, making this specific kind of movie? What do you think you brought to this film, that perhaps a male director, even from Algeria, could not have done?

MM: A lot of things pushed me to tell this story. But what was most important is that, at that time, during the civil war, the only images that the world had from Algeria, and the Algerian civil war, was the number of victims, the number of bomb attacks… It was very important to me to showing [in this period] that there were women. There was a resistance. Yes. I think that I bring is to show, from the inside, the resistance in Algerian society and especially the women. I think that I bring out their hope, their resistance, their way of living, their dreams, the problems that they have.

I mean, you know, when you live on this type of campus [ed note: the students in PAPICHA live in dorms], it’s difficult to have a boyfriend, it’s difficult to have a dreams. This point of view, again, from this young woman with all her resistance is something specifically female, because there is something of a deep intimacy with the girls, who speak about their problems, their intimate problems. I think I think this is what I bring. And, of course, there is the connection with documentary again, because like I said, you have to find how to build the story.

I decided to tell it is from a woman’s point of view: from inside, from this resistance. This resistance is specifically a woman’s, because they continue to work, to go to school, to be women, to avoid the hijab. All of this speaks to women’s bodies and women’s resistance.

They continue to to come to the school to be woman, to avoid the hijab. And all these speaks about that woman buddies on the woman resistance.

WIF: This film is really a love letter to Algerian culture in so many ways. Nedjma says that she loves Algeria. She does not want to leave even though many of the young people around her are attempting to leave. What has the reaction been in Algeria among the people who have seen the movie, particularly people like you who grew up during the Algerian civil war?

There are different reactions. There are the people who said, “OK, I was so traumatized that I can’t watch this movie because it speaks about the period.” This is the first real movie where you can see what happened from the inside in the country. And I know that a lot of people said, “I can’t because I’m not ready. I’m not ready to see what happened in Algeria.”

The second [reaction] is very important because there are a lot of people who say “oh, my God, yes, I lived that. I recognize myself. Iremember when we were obliged to put the hijab, because there were a lot of women who were killed because they refused that.” And they said, “OK, I remember this time.”

A lot of them recognize this period and they feel very emotional. They need to speak about this period. What is interesting, too, and it’s specific to friends here: a lot of them said, “OK, now I understand what happened, and why my mother or my father never speak about this period. Because now, this is the third generation. The previous generation never speak about the French or the French war with Algeria.

And now there is another generation that comes here  because it was a civil war.

It’s like me, you know. These families have children and these children never know about this period because it’s like a taboo, you know. They discovered the history of their parents in this movie.

Men, especially from Africa and Arab countries, ask every time why the men are so bad in the movie. And I answer: but the women are worse! The person who killed the journalist is a woman. There is no good or bad woman, and no good or bad man. It’s the complexity of human beings.

What is very interesting is that the movie was censored in Algeria.

People find alternative ways to watch the movie. And I know it’s very illegal! But it is very important that the people can see this story, which is their story.  A lot of people are traumatized to this day, and they see the movie and they say “ok, now we see concretely these images and I will speak about my feelings at that time.” It’s like a therapy..  

WIF: Joy and love and laughter exist side-by-side with trauma and loss in this film.

It offers such hope. So I can imagine that this would be a very difficult film for people who lived during that period and whose families were affected, to watch and be immersed in it.

MM: Yes. Yes. But, you know, hope and humor were the only things that we had at that time. And music, of course. It was our moment of freedom, because in this horror, the only thing is to find a way to be – not ironic, but to love, to laugh, to joke…dramatic jokes! Tragi-comique, we say.

WIF: Are you working on a new project now?

MM: Yes, I’m working a continuation of PAPICHA. I started something with Algeria, and now I need to finish another part about what’s happening today, because it’s a very important period. In Algeria, there’s three very big periods: colonialism with the French; the civil war; and what’s happening today. We call it the Smiler Revolution. And this is very important because it’s been, like, 10 months now. My movie is about this period, but only in the background. [The audience] follows a dancer. We speak about her life. And it’s again, about women and their bodies, because the body is very, very important in that society.