What was your personal journey leading up to Papicha?

I did all of my studies in Algeria followed by a year at a journalism school on a university campus very similar to the one in the film. At the end of that year, when I was seventeen, my family decided to leave the country. Intellectuals were on the front line and my father, a filmmaker himself, had received threats – it was in the middle of what we called the “black decade”. We settled in Seine-Saint-Denis where the Pantin city hall helped us through the administrative process and was already welcoming a lot of families of Algerian artists and intellectuals.

When I arrived in France, I enrolled in a master’s program in information and communications, and then I switched over to documentary filmmaking. I was lucky enough to get an internship at FEMIS, co-financed by the French Institute of Algiers. While continuing to make documentaries, I shot my first short fiction, Edwige. Then, the Papicha project was born.

Is Papicha ian autobiographical film?

In part: everything that the girls experience on the university campus is indeed what everyday life was like for Algerian female students in the late 90s. Including me. With fundamentalism on the rise, oppression was all around us. But the terrorist attack on the university campus is a fictional plot device. Just like Nedjma’s passion for fashion, which takes on a symbolic dimension: what the fundamentalists wanted at the time was to hide women’s bodies; for me, fashion, which reveals and beautifies bodies, constitutes a resistance to black headscarves.

In the film, what I enjoy as an audience member is identifying with the characters, following their paths, their adventures. I like to see how characters confront obstacles and tragedies in order to become better people. As such, the script was developed around Nedjma. I wanted to tell the story of this young woman that, through her resistance, takes us on a great journey fraught with pitfalls that shows us multiple facets of Algerian society with its resourcefulness, mutual support, friendship, love – and also struggles. This way, the campus is sort of a microcosm.

What was the writing process like?

I’ve had this subject inside me for a while, but I needed time before I could devote myself entirely to it. I needed to get some perspective, and perhaps mourn this period. I also needed to build my own weapons: train myself in script writing, staging, directing actors, etc. Once I got started, I chose to transmit this experience in fictional form – the writing was instinctive and fast, compulsive, like dictation. I wanted to be faithful to the details, to the memories, and to the music of that time.

We did extensive work on the structure and asked ourselves how far we could go with the violence. We compressed an evolution that took several years into just a few weeks. There’s a progression in the film: posters outside the campus, then posters on the campus, and then all the way to the dining hall. And the veiled women that come into the girls’ room. These patrols of women in hijab existed. They would come and interrupt classes on a regular basis.

How did you come up with the character Nedjma?

She comes from a working-class background. A lot of girls work hard to be able to live on a campus. To study, obviously, but also to have a little freedom, to get away from the stranglehold of her family – characterized by father and the brother. It was a place of freedom. Nedjma is a combative girl that dreams of staying in her own country. I was like her: when you’re young and unaware of the opportunities available overseas, you don’t want to leave. Leaving was hard for me – it happened overnight. It was an uprooting.

For Nedjma, isn’t there a kind of denial of the rising threat?

Absolutely. It’s as if she was wearing blinders. But even during the difficult moments that some countries go through, people continue going to work and to school, and continue having fun. Life goes on despite the danger. With the death of her sister, Linda, Nedjma’s strong instinct for life transforms into rage that leads her to the fashion show. Nedjma isn’t against religion. She is fighting the abuses carried out in its name.

Designing dresses is a way of mourning. When we mourn, we need to be active. She only mourns when she goes back to her sister’s grave at the end. So her tears are a means of accepting her sister’s death, of letting go. It’s only then that Nedjma finds peace.

Linda’s character is a tribute to the hundreds of journalists and intellectuals that were the prime target before the murderous insanity threatened the entire population. Death was an everyday occurrence. A lot of people around us - family, friends and loved ones - died.

How did you come up with the characters for Nedjma’s girlfriends?

Her best friend, Wassila, is more sentimental than she is. She believes in love and will even be prisoner to an impossible love. Kahina dreams of going to Canada: that was a time when Roch Voisine was every teenager’s favourite star! Every girl dreamed of going far away. And then there’s Samira – the most religious of all of them, and also the catalyst for the fashion show: she is the one that is always reminding Nedjma to never give up. And ultimately, it becomes a powerful unifying act; all of the girls contribute to this unprecedented moment of letting go. For us, the dorm was a place of freedom – we could study, but also dance and listen to music. I only have happy memories of that time. I had blinders on, too!

You chose to shoot in Algeria...

It was natural and primordial for me to shoot in Algiers – it’s the city where I grew up. We shot scenes at the university campus in Tipaza in a tourist complex built by Fernand Pouillon, which was sparsely renovated, so we were able to redecorate the refectory and the rooms with my talented chief set designer Chloé Cambournac. We also shot in Algiers, namely in the casbah, when Nedjma is innocently followed by a boy that hit on her using a great deal of imagination. In Algeria, he’s what we’d call a “hittiste”, coming from the Arabic word for “wall”, because they spend their day leaning against the walls of houses.

Shooting in Algeria also allowed me to include an almost documentarylike veracity: in the bus, for example, when I saw the conductor arrive with his singular gestures, the way he made his coins clink between his agile fingers and his blackened hands, I imagined the scene built around him. I like mixing reality and fiction. I also wanted to include typical Algiers speak, which is so lively, creative and often hilarious.

That unique blend of Arabic and French?

It’s what we call “françarabe”: we take a French word and “Algerify” it and then endlessly mix idioms. I wanted the film to have that rhythm and that richness – because that’s what it is! – and it’s quite unique to Algeria. I wanted to anchor the film in a city that I know and love, with its paradoxically relaxed rhythm of life. In that vein, Papicha is a typically Algerian word that refers to a funny, attractive, liberated young woman.

Was the subject of your film a problem for the Algerian film  authorities?

Of course, Algeria hasn’t forgotten the trauma of the black decade, but the people need to exorcize this drama – even twenty years later. Each time that I discussed shooting the film with people, with the team or in the street, I could sense this crucial need to transmit. Talking about it is critical in order to avoid slipping into new excesses.

Today, what the Algerian population denounces is the bad economic and social management of the country. That’s why people are going out in droves and demanding change. We drew lessons from history: after all, there were over 150,000 deaths. The grievances are no longer religious. The people simply want a better life.

You made the decision to shoot close to bodies and faces…

I did a lot of preliminary work with my chief operator, Léo Lefèvre. I wanted a film that was both poetic and visceral - immersive and organic. I knew we’d have a tight working schedule – five weeks of shooting 6 days a week – so we had to define what we wanted to shoot very precisely: a film about the instinct for life with a feverish staging. Seeing from Nedjma’s point of view, discovering the other characters through her, meant having the camera very close to her, following her every movement – when she’s sewing, when she’s searching, when she finds…

For the choral scenes, we had a floor plan with each of the girls’ movements. There’s also the incredible editing work done by my editor, Damien Keyeux. I wanted incisive, nervous editing that mirrored the vitality of our heroine Nedjma, who embodies Algerian youth with its sacrificed hopes, but that never gives into fear.

Where did you get the idea for the “haïk” fashion show?

The idea came out of an economic necessity: I was wondering what this young woman, who doesn’t have a lot of money, could use to create a clothing collection. In Algeria, every woman has a “haïk” at home. Beyond its traditional function as a garment, it was the symbol of the national Algerian resistance against French colonial policy. Back then, women hid the fighters’ weapons in these cloths and, symbolically, using it struck me as an interesting way to show that women have always resisted alongside men in the fight against colonialism or terrorism. Its colour was important: white represents the purity and elegance of the Algerian woman. It’s the perfect antithesis to the dark blackness of the niqab worn in the Gulf countries.

How did you come up with the creations in Nedjma’s fashion show?

All throughout the preparation, I collected a great deal of material: visual references, inspirations, designs by famous fashion designers, things that were simple to reproduce and within the reach of a student passionate about fashion design. From there, our chief costume designer, Catherine Cosme, did a magnificent job creating an original and unique collection using the “haïk”.

How did you choose the young Lyna Khoudri, who plays Nedjma?

At the beginning, I firmly insisted on my heroine being Algerian. When I met Lyna, I was immediately captivated by her strength and fragility. I like that chemistry. In her, there is that innocence and enthusiasm, but also formidable rigor and a need for truth. In talking with her, I discovered that her personal history was very close to my own. Her father was a journalist and her family had to leave Algeria in the 90s. She had to rebuild everything, like me. I couldn’t have found an actress that could better understand Nedjma.

With Lyna, we exchanged, prepared, rehearsed and refined the details and the dialogues – even on set. We constructed and deconstructed Nedjma’s reactions and emotions by creating emotional levels that were very useful since we shot the scenes out of order.

And the other girls?

The hardest part to cast was Wassila. It had to be someone that was extroverted, natural, and that spoke the language. I couldn’t find anyone. And then an Algerian casting director put us in touch with this young, highly intuitive YouTuber, Shirine Boutella, that immediately got the character thanks to her intelligence and thirst for learning. Kahina, Zahra Doumandji, the girl that dreams of leaving, is a doctor of Biology in real life. Her joyful, innocent sensuality symbolizes the perfection of Algerian women. And Samira, Amina Hilda Douaouda, is an extraordinary actress, an astonishing natural: she’s a slammer. I cast the other actresses on Instagram, YouTube or in stand-up.