A Turkish bath becomes the setting for a series of steamy, provocative and violently political confrontations between women of all ages, shapes and sizes in I Still Hide to Smoke, an intriguingly polemical first feature from Algerian writer-director Rayhana.
Featuring an all-female cast headed up by Israeli-Palestinian actress Hiam Abbas (Lemon Tree, The Visitor), this stagy production was adapted from Rayhana’s 2009 play, using a single location and time setting to explore the situation of women under the Islamist regime that took hold of Algeria in the early 1990s. Controversial and caustic, if a bit heavy-handed in places, the modest yet effective ensemble piece scooped up the audience award at last year’s Thessaloniki Film Festival and was released theatrically in France in late April. Foreign boutique distributors may want to take notice.
A feminist cri de coeur from the bathhouse.
Easily acing the Bechdel Test, Smoke follows a day-in-the-life of 50-year-old Fatima (Abbas), who runs a single sex hammam that serves as a femme-centric refuge in an Algiers beset by car bombs and baton-waving fundamentalists. Along with her guy-crazy helper, Samia (Fadila Belkebla), Fatima offers up comforting talk, baths and massages to dozens of women — from teenagers through senior citizens — wishing to relax, remove their hijabs and escape the oppressive atmosphere outside.
Very much like a theater piece (the setting superficially recalls Nell Dunn’s 1981 British play Steaming), the film focuses on Fatima and a handful of characters as they sit around the bathhouse engaged in conversation. Some of the talk is extremely raunchy, with the bathers discussing intercourse, orgasms and related topics — an extremely rare thing in a movie dealing with Muslim women. Other chats are much more hostile, including a showdown between a devout supporter of Islam (Nassima Benchicou) and a victim of a fundamentalist attack (Sarah Layssac), ending in a confrontation that leaves the two of them shattered.
Pushing the plot along is the story of 16-year-old Meriem (Lina Soualem), who’s secretly pregnant and being chased around town by her vengeful brother, Mohamed (Fethi Galleze). She hides out in the bathhouse, with Fatima doing her best to cover things up. But it’s only a matter of time before Mohamed and the local clerics come banging at the door to seek bloody retribution, forcing the women inside to band together against a menace both deeply religious and highly misogynistic.
From the very first scene, where we see Fatima being raped at home by her husband, then arriving to cleanse — and smoke a cigarette — at the hammam, Rayhana depicts the setting as a haven for women subjected to all kinds of abuse in an aggressively Islamist country. Not all of them are leading unhappy lives — some even seem to embrace the new regime — but it’s clear they have little room to express themselves in public, which explains why they pour their hearts out so easily to Fatima and the others.
With interiors shot in Greece and only a handful of exteriors in Algiers (photography was credited to Olympia Mytilinaiou and Mohamed Tayeb-Laggoune), Smoke can grow claustrophobic in stretches, lacking sufficient depth in both the setting and within certain situations — especially during the violent denouement, which is meant to take on the guise of tragedy but can feel overdramatic and a bit too staged.
Yet for the most part, Rayhana’s ambitious debut remains a fairly gripping account of women finding respite in each other’s company at a time, and in a place, where they have few possibilities to express themselves freely. Filming her subjects in various natural states of undress is, given the context, a political act in and of itself, and the director has managed to create a veritable depiction of les corps à l’oeuvre — of female bodies at work and ready to rebel.
Production companies: KG Productions, Arte France Cinema, Eurimages, Blonde, Battam Films
Cast: Hiam Abbas, Fadila Belkebla, Nadia Kaci, Nassima Benchicou, Sarah Layssac, Maymouna, Lina Soualem, Faroudja Amazit, Biyouna
Producer: Michele Ray-Gavras
Directors of photography: Olympia Mytilinaiou, Mohamed Tayeb-Laggoune
Production designer: Magdalini Siga
Music: Anne-Sophie Versnaeyen
Sales: Les Films du Losange
In Arabic, French