Body Language Speaks Volumes in Mounia Meddour’s ‘Houria,’ Starring ‘The French Dispatch’ Actor Lyna Khoudri

Body language is the only one worth paying attention to in Mounia Meddour’s “Houria,” shown at Cairo Film Festival this week.

Her protagonist, a talented dancer, dreams of joining the Algerian National Ballet, but a violent attack leaves her broken – and mute. When she meets other women, all trying to overcome their own traumas, she starts developing her own choreography, inspired by sign language.

“In Algeria, people speak a lot. They want to explain everything. Here, it was all about trying to express things without words. We used bodies instead,” says the director, also behind the script.

“It’s their clandestine language. Only these women can understand it and they can use it to communicate with each other.”

Meddour’s idea mesmerized “CODA’s” Troy Kotsur, who joined the film as executive producer. But it also helped her examine the themes of sisterhood.

“At the beginning of the movie, Houria dances alone. At the end, she is surrounded by other women. I am trying to show that we need each other in order to live a better life. It’s important to remember, especially in patriarchal societies. This move from an individual to a collective can be a solution to our pain.”

The film allowed her to reunite with Lyna Khoudri, cast as its complicated lead.

It was Meddour’s feature debut, Cannes title “Papicha,” that scored Khoudri a César for the most promising actress in 2019. Since then, she has been seen in Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and will soon appear in the much-anticipated epic “The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan” and “Milady” as Constance Bonacieux.

“We have a very strong relationship,” says the helmer.

“We share a similar past: our fathers were artists and we understand Algeria’s tragedy. But this movie was very different [from ‘Papicha’] because it took a long time to learn sign language and dance, both classical and contemporary. We talked a lot, also to therapists, in order to understand what happens to a human being after they go through a trauma. We wanted to understand what happened to Houria.”

Predictably, the pandemic made their jobs even harder.

“It was intense, but Lyna is intense as well. She works a lot and likes to be precise. I am the same way. I used to direct documentaries, so it’s important for me to share something real.”

Meddour wants her performers to feel free on set, she says, allowing them to add new things to the scenes.

“It’s the camera that follows the actors, not the other way around. Which makes it harder for my cinematographer [Léo Lefèvre], but luckily, he has already worked with me on ‘Papicha.’ He knows me quite well.”

While her stories tend to mirror Algeria’s complicated past and its present, Meddour doesn’t see herself as a political director.

“I am just a director who tells stories which happen to have a political context. I hope that my films are universal. I don’t think of them as political, although when you think about it, all cultural acts are just that,” she notes.

“My first movie was more tragic; it was set during the civil war. ‘Houria’ takes place 20 years later. This is how we are living today, dealing with all these problems. And with this past, which is still very present.”

“The young generation is struggling to find work, they long for liberty and freedom. But they are strong. They are trying to change things.”

Which is why there is still hope in “Houria,” despite all the pain. But Meddour is not done talking about women just yet. She is developing a female-centered historical drama.

“It’s a big challenge: it’s not the same budget,” she says. As reported by Variety, producer Vanessa van Zuylen – behind “Eiffel” and Virginie Efira starrer “Up for Love” – is already attached.

“I prefer to talk about what I know and as it happens, it’s women and their problems. It’s just what I love to do.”

“Houria” is produced by The Ink Connection and High Sea Production, and is co-produced by France 2 Cinéma and Scope Pictures. It is sold by Wild Bunch International.

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