Any chance you get to see this film, take it. The sad fact is that it’s unlikely you’ll be overrun with offers to view contemporary Algerian docs on a screen near you – unless you’re in Belgium perhaps: A Female Cabby in Sidi Bel-Abbes is an Algerian/Belgian co-production. The film is a joy to watch, but the screening leaves a bitter taste in the mouth as you reflect on how rare it is for us to see this kind of original insider story from countries outside the charmed circle of Europe and the USA. I hope Belkacem Hadjadj’s documentary makes it through the rich world curtain and sells widely to our broadcasters.
Soumicha is a professional cabby. If you want to get a sense of what it means to be the first and only woman cab driver in Sidi Bel-Abbes, just ask the woman who stood in the street and spontaneously applauded as Soumicha drove by.
The film uses a fixed camera peering into the back of the cab as Soumicha makes her rounds to deliver a quirky portrait of the inhabitants in Sidi Bel-Abbes: from the woman passenger who says how proud and empowered it makes her feel to ride behind a female cabby, to the irate man insisting he’d never allow his own wife to drive male strangers, to the old codgers drinking coffee in street corner cafes, who point out placidly that the cabby has a family to support.
Soumicha turns out to be a widow and the sole provider for her daughters, as well as a formidable role model for them. When her cabby husband died she went behind the wheel herself. The film moves on from the gentle, humorous cab and kitchen table sequences of the opening into much darker territory, as Soumicha sets out on a ‘road movie’ trail to meet protesting women factory workers and victims of Algeria’s war. The structure of her journey feels a bit haphazard at times, but there’s a nail-biting twist at the end (I won’t spoil it by giving it away), which makes you acknowledge how successful A Female Cabby in Sidi Bel-Abbes is in drawing the viewer along on the journey from the light-hearted to the life-or-death.