Films inspired by true events are often expected to be somewhat inspirational, dramatising a true tale of triumph against the odds for audience entertainment. To its credit, Mounia Meddour’s film is a horrifying example to the contrary, subverting the genre’s expectations in this portrait of a young woman’s artistic dreams in the face of rising extremism. Papicha captures what happens when dreams and defiance are not enough to overcome the odds, leaving questions unanswered and potential unfulfilled.

Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri), nicknamed Papicha, and her friends live and study at Algiers University, where she majors in French and designs elaborate runway looks in her free time, sneaking out with her best friend Wassila (Shirine Boutella) in illegal taxis to dance in less legal nightclubs. As Islamic extremists begin targeting women who do not wear a hijab, Papicha devises a plan to put on a fashion show.

Art, hope, and life are intertwined on screen, and all three become acts of rebellion. Papicha and Wassila’s clandestine makeup routine is captured in the shadows, streetlights strategically highlighting eyeshadow and lipstick. Later on, Papicha dyes a dead friend’s bloodstained clothes with beets and turmeric, making something new from unspeakable grief in a mesmeric sequence that emphasises the tactility of creation and mortality.

This thematic richness makes the inevitable even more heartbreaking. A bittersweet moment at the end is framed in hope, but it is impossible to ignore the context established – not to mention the climactic devastation that immediately precedes it.

Papicha captures the warmth of female friendships and solidarity in a changing, hostile world, but it is far too worldly to pretend these qualities are irrepressible in the face of organised violence. The drastic contraction of a world and destruction of dreams makes the film a sombre testament to a personal and national tragedy.



CAST: Lyna Khoudri, Shirine Boutella, Amira Hilda Douaouda, Yasin Houicha

DIRECTOR: Mounia Meddour

WRITERS: Mounia Meddour (screenplay), Fadette Drouard (collaboration)

SYNOPSIS: Inspired by true events, a student in 1990s Algiers stages a fashion show despite pressure from extremists.