Somewhere in the Algerian portion of the Sahara desert lives Malika, the sole proprietor of a lonely café situated by the side of a road that stretches in both directions to the horizon. Hassen Ferhani’s documentary, 143 Sahara Street, takes this space as its subject, and its objective isn’t to illuminate Malika’s past or to delve into any of the wider questions that might arise from the conversations of the travellers who stop at her café – in that sense this is a road movie, a film that occupies a present between two possible places, revealing itself only through snatches of dialogue that gesture to an expansive yet hidden history of both Malika and Algeria. The cost of tea and an omelette at Malika’s is a mere 90 dinars (about 75 cents) as we find out in one of her first encounters; indeed, much remains off-screen in this film but wealth is something simultaneously vacant and intrusive. Malika subsists on a pittance, and the image of her small café surrounded by the barren expanse of the desert hardly conjures any notions of wealth, yet she also makes reference to the people of the Sahara now being able to afford “fancy cars” and “good brands” as well as rich Qataris hunting in the area nearby.
I don’t know whether it’s passivity on the part of the people (drawn from a deep religiosity) or a certain hesitation to announce their dissatisfaction with the government which is stopping them from being unequivocal in regards to issues besetting them and their country — we hear mention of lack of jobs, stagnating wages, and the new gas station encroaching on Malika’s turf – so this lack of money is hardly localised to the café, even if only a couple are happy to speak it. Beyond these financial issues exists a wealth of historical details that seem to converge on this solitary café (the infamous terrorist Mokhtar Belmokhtar is even mentioned as having visited Malika during the “years of terrorism”, stopping by like so many others at this oasis in Southern Algeria), so perhaps it should come as no surprise that leaving this space she’d claimed as her own for so many years is an idea unwelcome to Malika’s mind. Her rootedness is displayed not only through the stories she tells but through the faces of those who visit her – as they have so many times before – to make clear to us the indispensable function she serves to travelers, alone in the desert.
Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2019 | Dispatch 7: Wavelengths Program.