143 SAHARA STREET WAVE D: Hassen Ferhani. Algeria. 103 min. Sep 8, 3:45 pm, TIFF 4; Sep 9, 4:15 pm, Scotiabank 7; Sep 14, 6:15 pm, AGO. Rating: NNNN
Algerian filmmaker Ferhani explores the space between being alone and being lonely in this documentary about a quietly radical woman who goes off the grid – only to have the grid catch up with her.
The elderly Malika lives in a small, boxy roadside cafe in the middle of the Sahara. After an extended musical prelude over images of the vast desert establishes a sense of isolation, the tone switches to one of possibility when we meet Malika, a reserved, wry and warm presence who attracts a regular stream of travellers: from truck drivers and migrant workers to a European tourist and a troupe of musicians. One particularly poetic customer calls her “the gatekeeper of the void.”
Through various conversations, sometimes involving the director (there’s no way to be a fly on the wall in this space), we learn more about Malika but also political life in Algeria. She may be isolated but she is far from unplugged. Ferhani’s striking camera work alternates between wide landscapes and using windows and doorways to create dramatically fragmented impressions and subtly shifting points of view.
Gradually it becomes clear Malika does not crave acceptance or validation from family, religion or the government. Instead, she has created her own world. Events arise that create a sense of anxiety and imminent change, but Ferhani mostly avoids overstating socio-political themes, using his affecting images to capture a familiar mood of uncertainty in a very specific place.