After world premiering at Cannes in Un Certain Regard to warm reviews, Mounia Meddour’s debut feature, “Papicha,” was the first film to be submitted for the International Feature Film category at the Oscars in July. But its inclusion in the race was threatened when local authorities in Algeria pulled the plug on the movie’s limited theatrical release the week of Sept. 21 — making it impossible for “Papicha” to screen in Algeria before the Sept. 30 deadline required to qualify for inclusion in this category.
Although the film was shot in Algeria, partly financed there and granted a screening visa, the release of “Papicha” was canceled by authorities without any explanation. The movie was meant to be released by Centre algérien du développement du cinéma (Algerian Center of Cinema Development).
Producers Xavier Gens and Gregoire Gensollen at Paris-based The Ink Connection and co-producer Belkacem Hadjadj at Algiers-based Tayda Film fought unsuccessfully to have the movie released before the deadline and contacted the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to explain the situation. The Academy ultimately decided to keep the film in the race along with 92 other entries in spite of its lack of local release, an allowance it has made in the past for films in similar circumstances – for example, from Syria and Yemen.
Meddour remains upset that “Papicha” can’t be shown in her homeland, where it has been hotly anticipated. As many as 2,000 people had signed up for each of the four premiere screenings, she said.
“We used to have 500 theaters in Algeria; now there are only six of them,” said Meddour. “Very few movies come out and Algerians are craving for cultural events. ‘Papicha’ had triggered a lot of anticipation because it talks about youth in Algeria and we’ve been promoting the film since Cannes.”
Set in Algiers in the 1990s, “Papicha” follows powerful young women who refuse to bow down to fundamentalism and reject the new bans imposed by the radical Islamists as the women plan to put on a fashion show.
Meddour said the cancellation reflects the volatile political climate in Algeria. Pro-democracy street protests have been taking place in Algeria since March and have continued even after the country’s president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, was ousted in April, leading to violent arrests.
The country’s military-backed interim government, which was put in place in the wake of Bouteflika’s exit, is also in turmoil. The government’s culture minister stepped down in August following a violent incident during a rap concert (five people were killed) and has not yet been replaced. The communication minister is serving as interim culture minister.
Meddour said that due to the political shakeup and the start of the protests, the people she had been in touch with when they raised the financing and obtained the permits are no longer there. “The elections are coming up on Dec. 12 and the future of the country is at stake. The atmosphere is very tense and unstable right now,” said Meddour, adding that a flurry of events have been canceled since the culture minister stepped down.
Hadjadj said that although “Papicha” is not overly political or preachy, it’s driven by independent, strong women who denounce radical Islam, which may have ruffled the feathers of zealots within the interim government.
He also noted that Meddour and her cast members wore pins showing their support for the Hirak movement, which is behind the pro-democracy protests in Algeria, during the photo call in Cannes. That might have also have upset some folks within the government. “But all of these are just hypothesis,” Hadjadj said. “We were given no explanation whatsoever and I wrote a letter to the minister of communication to explain that the cancellation was totally arbitrary and would have consequences on the image of the country. But he never replied.”
“Papicha,” which had its North American premiere Sept. 27 at Colcoa, was just released Wednesday in France by Jour2Fete and is enjoying strong word-of-mouth. The movie doesn’t yet have domestic distribution.
Meddour said she hopes the film will travel around the world because “it shows Algeria like it’s rarely represented in films, and it also shows strong Algerian women who resisted oppression and kept their femininity in spite of the civil war.”