“Don’t drink standing up. Satan will see you. And with your left hand too!”
So Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri) is chided by her more conservative friend Samira (Amira Hilda Douaouda) in a harmless admonishment. The young women studying at a university in Algiers in 1997 are aware of the restrictions placed upon them but, with the confidence of youth, Nedjma and her friend Wassila (Shirine Boutella) gleefully flout the rules.
Sneaking out at night, they pay the caretaker Mokhtar (Samir El Hakim) to turn a blind eye as they head to a nightclub to dance and sell the dresses that Nedjma makes. Posters exhorting women to wear hijab start appearing and the threat quickly grows as fundamentalists set off bombs and assassinate women who don’t comply.
Nedjma is a hard head though and ignores all the signs that her world has changed, refusing offers to flee Algeria. Tensions come to a head with her planned fashion show that epitomises everything the fundamentalists are trying to crush.
Although this is the story of Nedjma and, in many ways, her forced transition to the realities of an adult world, it paints a detailed picture of the different choices people make under oppression. You can see that Nedjma’s mother has seen it all before as she shows her daughters how she learned to hide Kalashnikovs under her haik (a large light coloured wrap). Nedjma chooses to ignore it, Wassila to trust in the protection of men and Samira to try and toe the line. It matters not, of course, because the aim is subjugation and it’s not going to end well for women, regardless of their choices.
There are some genuinely unexpected dramatic turns in the narrative that provide a sobering undercurrent to what is a warm and textured story. Nedjma and Samira are particularly interesting and well characterised and although there is a hopeful note at the end, it’s hard not to despair at the hopelessness of the prospects for these vibrant, optimistic women.
Have you seen this film? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.