Hassen Ferhani's quiet documentary about an off-the-grid café in the Sahara Desert is an intimate portrait of its proprietor and her guests — as well as the landscape, and Algeria.
143 Sahara Street
The Sahara covers over four-fifths of Algeria. Somewhere in this vast expanse of desert, Malika lives alone, running her café with one table and a menu that offers an omelette and tea. Dwarfed by the sands that stretch out to the horizon and beset by harsh winds, Malika's outpost seems oddly placed, and decidedly lonely. Yet, as Hassen Ferhani's quiet, vérité documentary unfolds, it becomes clear that this locale is hardly thirsting for life.
Malika's off-the-grid spot is a welcome rest stop for a variety of travellers, who come not just for the food but to share their stories. (Another fixture of the café is Mimi, Malika's beloved cat.) Religion, the economy, politics, family — Malika listens, interjects, and absorbs. And when her guests inevitably leave, there's a sense that the café has expanded to hold their memories. But Malika's kingdom — she is the ruler of what might be reductively dubbed a "no-man's land" — isn't immune to the march of socalled progress: a petrol station is to be built next door.
Ferhani films the space of the café with patient pacing that adapts to Malika's world, and with such intimacy as to evoke a sense of sitting next to the matriarch herself. The effect is that through Malika's exchanges, a portrait emerges of a woman, a landscape, and even a country.