Hand work: Layla Muchnik-Benali on Papicha

Layla Muchnik-Benali, Film/Video Curatorial Assistant

Jun 25, 2020

Lyna Khoudri in Papicha

Mounia Meddour’s debut feature film Papicha follows an Algerian university student named Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri) as she and her close-knit community of female friends navigate a traumatic moment in Algeria’s history, a time of civil war now known as the Black Decade (la décennie noire). In the ‘90s, 30 years after Algeria gained its independence from French colonial occupation, the country saw a sharp rise in extremist Islamic groups. Over the course of the civil war, civilians were trapped in the crossfire, and some estimates place the total deaths at 200,000. It was a deeply violent time that the country and its diaspora continue to mourn to this day. In the tapestry of Papicha, the Black Decade is the warp, and Algerian women the weft. The two become inseparable components of the country’s history.

A scene of women's hands from the film Papicha

Images courtesy of Distrib Films US

There is a second film hidden within Papicha. That film is about hands, especially women’s hands: hands that balance cigarettes, apply lipstick, and dig for wild beets. Nedjma’s hands are revolutionaries. With them, she designs clothes, and brings her visions to life with a sewing machine she can only use when her university dormitory has electricity. As Algiers becomes overrun with flyers mandating women cover themselves in full-body, black veils, her hands scratch at those flyers to tear them off the walls. Those same hands caress family and friends (mostly women) in moments of defiant tenderness. Papicha emphasizes the ways in which women have persistently cared for each other and found shared joy through history’s darkest times. How many women’s hands have cared for their dead and helped topple empires? More than what history will ever record. Meddour knows this. In an interview, she states: “The only images people had of [the Black Decade] were the number of victims, the war. I wanted to talk about the middle of the chaos. There were women who were always there, to support the society and keep the energy of the country.”

A hand tugs at a piece of cloth in a scene from the film Papicha

Women were always there. During the fight for Algerian independence in the ‘50s and ‘60s, women were there, too. One scene in particular from Papicha reminds us of this historical fact: Nedjma and her sister, Linda, visit their mother, who wraps herself in a makeshift haik to demonstrate. She tells her daughters about how women would show a little skin, sway their hips, and be able to smuggle two “Klashinkov” (her daughter corrects her: “Ka-la-shni-kov”) rifles, one under each arm, right past French troops. Ever since, the haik has lasted as a symbol of Algerian resourcefulness and independence. Its distinctive white silhouette might be most familiar to Western eyes from Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film The Battle of Algiers. One well-known scene shows French troops passing a group of people all wearing the haik and assume they are women, only to notice their boots--the group is really composed of Algerian rebel men. In an iconic moment, the Algerian men throw back their haiks and shoot at the French troops, the white cloth still draped around their bodies. 

Three young women huddle together in a scene from Papicha

The haik also plays a central role in Papicha. While most Algerian women had stopped wearing the haik by the ‘90s, its revolutionary connotations endured. When the extremist violence targeting women reaches a breaking point for Nedjma, she decides to rebel the best way she knows how: using her hands to design and make a line of re-invented haiks, to be modeled by her close friends for a fashion show at the university. One single haik is made from nearly 18 feet of cloth, often a wool/silk blend, and worn through an ingenious system of folding and wrapping that requires minimal sewing. As the radical Islamic groups in Algiers continue to murder women who choose not to cover their bodies, Nedjma channels the traditional art of covering for subversive ends. The film’s point is clear: it’s not the act of covering that is inherently oppressive, but rather the act of violent coercion. Throughout Papicha, some women in Nedjma’s circle of friends cover themselves, and some don’t--none are judged for their choices. This stymies a white feminist gaze that might decide that all Muslim women need saving from the hijab, the haik, or other religious coverings. All over the world, women have always fought for their own liberation, and they always will.