Mounia Meddour’s debut feature Papicha was the first film submitted to this year’s International Feature Film Oscar race, announcing itself way back in July. But the Algerian entry then had a rocky road to staying in the mix when the film’s local September release was cancelled by the government. The reasons were never made clear.
The 1990s-set story, which debuted in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard, focuses on a university student who refuses to let the tragic events of the Algerian Civil War keep her from experiencing a normal life. 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 on a fashion show.
For the film, Meddour drew from her own life in a college with four young women who each dreamed of a new life. She says, “I really lived in this microcosm of the Algerian community” which also had “the rise of integration. All of this came from a desire to bear witness from the black period. The only images people had of Algeria were the number of victims, the war. I wanted to talk about in the middle of the chaos. There were women who were always there, to support the society and keep energy of the country.”
It took Meddour six years to “find the equilibrium between reality and fiction” to tell the story. Ultimately, being selected by Cannes was a boost.
Says Meddour about her native country, “Algeria is a paradox. We love i, but hate it at the same time. We are attached to it but don’t reject it.”
Meddour cites the arrival of the film at a moment of political transition but with no official reason for its censure. The film, “opens a window on the society that we didn’t know that much. Few people knew what was going on at that time (and the) combat of the women to get out of this situation.”
Fans and proponents have not been silenced, however. On every Friday since the cancellation of the film in Algeria, Meddour says protesters have been out and concerned, traveling to Tunisia to see the movie. Does she care if it’s being pirated at this point? “As a director, what’s important is that people see the film.”
In a year where the International Feature Film category has had to rule ineligibile two films for language issues, it’s enlightening to know that the Academy gives special dispensation in times of crisis. Says Meddour, “When the film couldn’t come out in Algeria, we contacted the Oscar committee and asked for special dispensation. We had all the elements to prove the film was going to release and the cancellation was the day before. We live in Paris and had our plane tickets then heard it was not necessary to come (to Algeria)… the Oscar committee showed is good faith and was sensitive to the sincerity of our request and for the freedom of expression. That’s proof they support art and freedom of expression.”