'143 Sahara Street' ('143 rue du desert'): Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
Gets under your skin.

Algerian filmmaker Hassen Ferhani's documentary about an elderly woman who runs a Saharan truck stop alone premiered in Locarno before bowing in the TIFF Wavelengths program.

At a certain point in the observational documentary from Algerian director Hassen Ferhani, 143 Sahara Street (143 rue du desert), a visitor describes the protagonist, Malika, as a "gatekeeper of the void." Given that her isolated roadside cafe — which has one table and only three items on the menu: tea, eggs and water — lies somewhere along the Route Nationale 1, in the desert some 10 hours south of Algiers, this description makes sense. Yet at the same time, it feels entirely inaccurate; Ferhani's 100-plus-minute film suggests that this seemingly desolate place is actually teeming with life, as truckers drop by for food, tourists on motorcycles try to make themselves understood in English — Malika speaks only Arabic and a little French — and regulars bring her news from El Menia, the nearest city. Malika never moves, but the world comes to her doorstep.

Ferhani, the son of Algerian journalist Ameziane Ferhani, won the best emerging director prize in Locarno's Cineasti del Presente competition, where his film had its world premiere. This slow-moving documentary, which had its North American bow in the Wavelengths strand of the Toronto International Film Festival, is something that gradually gets under your skin. 

The desert hovel where Malika sleeps, cooks and works can't be much larger than 200 square feet. We rarely get to see the kitchen, while her bed seems to be totally off-limits. Instead, Ferhani, who also handled camera duties and can occasionally be heard offscreen, spends most of his time between the blue-washed walls of the front room, which looks out onto the yellow desert that starts right where the Route Nationale, which passes not far from Malika's doorstep, ends.

Underlining that she's looking out onto the world from within her modest shop-cum-dwelling, Ferhani frequently opts for shots that create a frame-within-the-frame, using windows and doorways to enclose and somehow tame the vast empty spaces that lie just beyond. Despite its extremely Spartan furnishings, it feels like a cocoon from the unwelcoming outside, where sand storms or wolves — four-legged ones but also wolves on two legs, as a client jokes winkingly — might suddenly appear out of nowhere. 

This is Ferhani's second feature, after the well-received documentary Roundabout in My Head, which looked at male workers in an Algiers slaughterhouse. Though Ferhani's still chronicling working-class Algeria, the fact that the elderly Malika is a single woman — not married and without kids — working alone in the middle of nowhere makes this quite a different fusion of workplace documentary and personal portrait. For one, the interviews are less obviously staged than in Roundabout, as Malika mostly interacts with her clients instead of with Ferhani directly.

This makes 143 Sahara Street more gently observational and less obviously directed, though it also has the unfortunate side effect of making the few instances in which Ferhani's presence does become noticeable — including moments in which the camerawork gets annoyingly wobbly — feel like they don't belong in the film because the illusion of life just quietly continuing in static fixed tableaux has been broken. 

This modus operandi also puts the onus of exposition on the customers and their small talk, and Malika's desire to respond to them or not, depending on her mood. Seated opposite her, on the other side of the shop's single table covered in an oilcloth that has seen better days, the men — almost all customers are men — talk to her about everything and nothing. Some even sing and make music, in a few lovely interludes that see Malika swept up in the excitement.

The frequently weary-eyed protagonist, however, turns out to be a somewhat slippery subject for a portrait. It's hard to get a handle on her personal story, with the headscarved old lady sometimes giving different versions of facts and events, at times joking and at other times confusingly talking about her cat and two dogs as if they were her children (imperfect subtitles don't always help straighten things out). While there are short conversations about women — "I hate all of them!" — imams and Malika's place in society, Ferhani doesn't quite manage to suggest the entire complexity of her role in life. 

What is clear, however, is that Malika refuses to move from her spot in the desert, even when they start building a gas station with a restaurant next door. Instead of marrying, she'll stay right where she is and "wait for her white shroud," she says with a devilish grin, hinting at the cloth used for Islamic burials. By the end of 143 Sahara Street, the details of Malika's life and situation might not all be transparent, but her spirit comes through loud and clear. 

Production companies: Allers-Retours Films, Centrale Electrique 
Writer-director: Hassen Ferhani
Producers: Narimane Mani, Olivier Boischot
Cinematographer: Hassen Ferhani
Editors: Stephanie Sicard, Nadia Ben Rachid, Nina Khada, Hassen Ferhani
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Wavelengths)

Sales: Pascale Ramonda

In Maghrebi Arabic, French
103 minutes