Hassen Ferhani was driving along the trans-Sahara highway in Algeria with his friend and writer Chawki Amari when he found the subject for his next film, “143 rue du desert” (“143 Sahara Street”), which screened this week at the Locarno film festival and has been selected for Toronto.
“I wanted to make a road movie,” Ferhani explains. When they were about 400 km from Timimoun, he remembered a woman Amari had written about in his book “Route One.” “I asked him: Do you think we can go meet Malika?”
Immediately on walking into Malika’s shop, a 20 meter square hut in the middle of nowhere – or “everywhere” as Ferhani calls it – he knew his next film had to be about her. Amari and Ferhani sat with Malika in her house-shop, and saw drivers come and go asking her for tea, eggs and cigarettes. “I just looked at this place and thought this is more than I can imagine, more than what I imagined when I read Amari’s book,” he says. “I felt myself filled with a lot of peace… She had this energy she gave to the place, even the walls had her energy.”
It is this same energy that carries the film forward. We stay with Malika throughout the film, inside her house-shop, never witnessing the actual road, but experiencing all the life and drama of the outside world by encountering the people and conversations that pass through Malika’s place.
“I thought, this is an inverse of a road movie. The street is [just] here and people come, like in a road movie. [We see] the movement of the truck drivers and all that, but I don’t have to move from this place, and I can make an inversion of a road movie. They come, I don’t go to them.”
Yet, both the landscape of the Sahara Desert, of which the seemingly endless sand dunes on the ever-retreating horizon are always in motion, and the geographical location of Malika’s safe haven, right at the heart of Algeria, also take on a central role in the film. The location emphasizes an almost limitless beyond, in which the extreme emptiness, and simultaneously the richness of life, come together in Malika’s square house.
“When I set out to travel the road, I don’t go to find places, but I meet them,” Ferhani says. “They’re not always full of people, but they are full of humans and histories. Places that are rich in life.” Malika’s place is not always teeming with people, but it is alive with movement and activity. Even in the stillness and silence, Ferhani finds poetry and drama in Malika’s ordinary everyday. One way of capturing that atmosphere for Ferhani was through the specific light: “When people ask me about the light in the film, I explain that it is the sun that enters the house and creates movement and different tonalities. That’s what makes the light in the film.”
Like his first feature film, “Roundabout in My Head” (2015), where Ferhani spent two months filming slaughterhouse workers in Algiers, “143 rue du desert” is not scripted or preconceived. Ferhani’s approach to narrative is strictly one of encountering and stumbling. The scenes in “143 rue du desert” are a collection of instances that happened to take place in Malika’s shop while he was there. They were not fictionalized or imagined.
This is why he rejects the categorization of documentary film as separate from fiction, because he believes that filmmaking is an act of encountering in a world that is always open for play. “I am happy that the film was chosen for Locarno, not because it is seen as a documentary, but because it has no genre. It is first and foremost cinema. I never said to myself that I was going to make a documentary, but that I am going to make a film with all the different tools cinema has to offer. I don’t really care about the genre before or after the making of the film. I am free to receive all that reality gives me.”
“143 rue du desert” does not follow the conventional narrative arc of a plotline. What we see is simply what Malika sees and feels at that point in her life, and so, the events that have brought her to this unusual place and the reasons that keep her there are never addressed. This is a conscious decision by Ferhani, as for him, it was important not to intrude in Malika’s life. “Part of the editing of this film is also about how you discover Malika,” he says, “but to also leave a part of her in the shadows, as a way to preserve her, and the intimacy of the film.” This is also reflected in his filmmaking process, as Ferhani usually works with small crews— in this case, two people—conscious not to take up too much space and to allow his characters to be comfortable.
Even though the film does not engage explicitly with Algerian politics, Ferhani says his decision to make a film about Malika, a lonely woman in the desert, the truck drivers, and all these people who are workers, is a “political gesture”.
“Algeria has always been a place of democracy for me,” he says. “Everyone can say what they want and the other listens. It’s a film about the society we live in and the idea is that ultimately, never mind where you live or come from, you can connect.”
Asked if Malika has seen the film, he laughs. “Not yet, but in December during the premiere in Algiers she will see it. I telephoned her and told her that the film had been selected for Locarno and Malika replied: ‘Oui, très bien. Comment ça va?’ She doesn’t care at all.’”