There’s a terrific moment in “143 Sahara Street” when a visitor to Malika’s isolated teahouse in the Algerian desert pretends to be a prisoner on the other side of the metal grated window, and Malika cracks up laughing from the role-play. Before then, Hassen Ferhani’s attractive observational documentary has done pretty much everything we expect it to do since the opening shot: The camera will basically stay put, the enigmatic protagonist — Malika — will win our hearts and the Sahara light will create endlessly picturesque variations on an immovable canvas. But that one unanticipated scene changes the dynamic, making Malika not just the passive rural subject of a sophisticated director but a playful co-conspirator in the act of portraiture. More focused than Ferhani’s well-received debut, “Roundabout in My Head,” his latest resulted in Locarno’s best emerging director award and should help draw more attention to this talented filmmaker.
Route Nationale 1 is the main thoroughfare linking Algeria’s Mediterranean north with the deserts of the south; smack in the middle is the El Ménia District, a barren region where Malika set up a roadside teahouse that serves as a waystation for passing motorists and truckers. The Spartan structure is unremarkable: a white rectangle consisting of a couple of rooms with a few cut-out windows and an open tumble-down extension on the side. She’s lived there in the rear since 1994, serving eggs, cigarettes, tea and water, a mystery woman in many ways originally from the north who occasionally mentions family she no longer sees. Her relationship with the townspeople some distance away is apparently better than when she arrived and was branded an immoral woman (probably because she was alone), but clearly both sides keep their distance.
Things are about to change with the construction of a gas station and restaurant next door. It’s a behemoth in comparison to Malika’s hut and a symbol of capitalism’s anonymity, sleek outside and soulless within. By contrast, her bare interior, consisting of little more than a few plastic chairs and an oilcloth-covered table, is a spot where truckers who regularly ply that route know they can go for a familiar face and a friendly pause. She’s willing to converse when engaged, but she’s just as happy to remain silent in the company of a client (almost exclusively male — she’s not especially fond of her own sex), looking out the doorway and watching the intermittent vehicles passing by, or calling out to her two dogs and her cat Mimi.
Ferhani discovered Malika thanks to his friend the writer Chawki Amari (he’s the one jokingly pretending to be her prisoner), who wrote about the highway and also appeared in Henri-Jacques Bourgeas’ documentary based on Amari’s book, “Nationale 1.” The two films are very different: Whereas the earlier docu is about the road and its infinite sense of space and possibility, “143 Sahara Street” (an invented address) is concerned with a fixed place in a constantly moving continuum, and addresses the need for familiarity and respectful human interaction whether between friends or strangers. Though far less directly political than “Roundabout in My Head,” it hints at difficult events in the past and expected changes in the future, mourning the impending loss of a present while cognizant of its inevitable transience.
Though largely observational, the film doesn’t pretend to be pure fly-on-the-wall, and Ferhani is heard sporadically asking Malika questions that are never fully answered. Toward the end we learn that she had a daughter, Bouciya, who was killed, giving a sharp new perspective to this vision of a solitary woman in the desert preferring to live alone. But for the most part, Ferhani simply lets his camera take her in, world-weary to a degree, welcoming to those who pass through but determined to maintain her independence.
The limpid clarity of the Saharan sun still has its gradations, and Ferhani beautifully captures the changes wrought on the light by time of day and location within the simple roadhouse. Though there are four credited editors, the film has a cohesive trajectory and rhythm, punctuated by the haunting Kabyle songs of Taos Amrouche and Brian Eno and David Byrne’s “Qu’Ran.”