After the success of her first film, Papicha, which won two Cesar awards for Best First Film and Most Promising Actress, French-Algerian filmmaker Mounia Meddour is back with her newest film, Houria (Libertad), out in Spanish cinemas on June 30th. A heartbreaking story about resilience, transformation, strength, and recovery.
Meddour joins forces again with actress Lyna Khoudri to tell the fascinating tale of Houria, a beautiful ballet dancer who suffers an attack that leaves her mute and immobile. Through the 90-minute feature film, we see the main character regain her strength – both physically and emotionally – and become a fuller person when moving from childhood to adulthood. “What is important is how we portrayed Houria before and after the accident. After the accident, she is stronger,” the filmmaker says in this interview. An intense and poetic transformation that the audience navigates through other symbolic elements like the sound design, the weather, or the costumes.

Mounia prides herself on a unique creative process that encourages artistic liberty between herself and the actors, and she hopes that her approach to directing has positively influenced Houria’s story of pain and triumph.
Congratulations on your new film Houria (Libertad). I was fascinated by the cinematography, the beautiful storyline, and the passionate performances. What was the process like working on Houria and being able to collaborate again with actresses like Lyna Khoudri, who plays the title character?
After Papicha, we finished working on the history of Algeria and the strength of the women, and we decided to continue this work with the same cast and the same actors, especially with Lyna. For us, it was very important to talk about the new generation of women in Algeria and tell about how strong they are. For Lyna it was a very nice discovery in Papicha, and the two of us are very connected in work and in life. She speaks about her movies, and I speak about mine. We are very good friends now.
The process was very hard because she had never danced classically. So she spent one year working on classical and contemporary choreography as well as sign language. Then, we spent about one year working on this to have a very good transformation – to start with very classical, rigid, and serious dance and transforming to very organic choreography and adding sign language. We worked very long with the choreographer, who is Moroccan and danced with Beyoncé.
It was a very interesting process between Lyna, the choreographer, the composer of the music, and I because it was very hard to find a good balance for the tribal dance. There is percussion and African music by the end. It was a very interesting and stimulating process with the entire artistic team.
This film encapsulates many different communities and features several languages/forms of communication – French, Arabic, Sign Language, as well as dance and the writing on the skin. What was it like finding a way to truthfully express and depict these cultures throughout the course of the movie?
I direct a lot of documentaries, and I work hard on the script. So the first step for me is to have a very specific, strong, natural, and realistic script. It’s all about the evolution of the characters, even the small ones. The second thing is that it was important that all the actors were Algerian. They speak Algerian and Arabic. For me it’s necessary because it’s natural, which is necessary in this context. The actors themselves should understand the political situations, and they know how the women speak, move, and interact with each other. There is something very organic there. These things, you can’t direct an actor to do. It’s very natural and very specific. This is for the reality of what we have in the movie. After that, we worked on sign language and the writing on the skin. It represented the transformation of the character – speaking and being able to express herself, which is something natural in human beings.
It’s like cooking: we put all the ingredients together and composed it. We rehearsed a lot, there was a lot of repetition. I spent two years on the script and another year of preparation and dance rehearsals. When I’m on set, what matters to me isn’t about telling people to walk from one point to another. It’s something more organic. The actors move how they want, and our director of photography moves with them to take good shots. Otherwise it’s limiting. As an actor, the director will tell you: ‘walk from here to there’ and ‘put your hand in your pocket like this.’ It’s the opposite for me. My actor is free, and if they feel that they have to go this way because it’s natural, my DP will follow the action. Of course, it’s very hard to edit because every take is different, but when we fix it we do it twice, three times, four times. I think this is something very specific, but it’s my way of directing. I like it this way. If I force you to do something and it’s not natural, we’ll notice it on your face, and your face is your instrument.
Houria is a very multicultural film. The main character speaks French at the ballet school, Arabic with her family and friends, and Sign Language at physical therapy. As an Algerian-French filmmaker who was born in Russia, you yourself are also very multicultural. Did you find ways to incorporate and create parallels between Houria’s experience of living in multiple worlds and your own experiences?
Yes, I have a lot of culture, but I spent about twenty years in Algeria, and that is the biggest part of me, as well as French. For me, it’s important to feature multiculturalism and for the characters to have a lot of diversity and to have some ambivalence. It’s not all black and white. Even when I started working on the characters, it was paramount to have different ways of thinking among them. I try to understand each of them and make them to be very universal. I don’t know if my experiences were included, maybe unconsciously. We can perhaps feel it through the movie. It’s certainly present when I write the characters.
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Languages aren’t the only aspect of sound which you explore in Houria. I noticed that the film experiments with dramatic sound dynamics. Loud noises and sudden silence, not to mention spoken and non-verbal communication. What was your approach to creating this sort of sound environment for the audience? And furthermore, how do you think it translated in terms of emotional dynamics?
It’s very important because in Papicha I worked a lot on the sound design. And it was vital for Houria too because there are deaf people [in the film]. It was imperative to work on the earlier parts when Houria can speak and later when she can’t speak – to create the sounds of the town, the wind, and the sea. This is crucial to have the reality, the concrete situations, and the context. Afterwards, in the second part when she can’t speak, it became poetic, so we left space for the silence. It was very symbolic. Also, when you can’t speak, the way you express yourself changes. You listen more, so it was necessary to have specific sounds.
Nature plays a big role in this film. The ocean symbolises fear (when Houria questions being scared of the ocean), opportunity (when Sonia leaves for Alicante), and music (Houria dances to the sounds of the ocean on the rooftop, and later, the entire dance company). Additionally, the weather reflects the emotions of the characters – sunny for hopeful and happy moments and rain for dark and sad moments. As a viewer, there were times when it felt like nature matched the situation almost too perfectly. What are your thoughts on this construction of nature to fit the moods and stories of the characters, instead of following a path of realism?
Yes, of course. It’s crucial to have this osmosis and symbolism. When it’s sunny, you are better and happier in life than when it’s raining. It’s more positive and hopeful. For me, it was a very conscious decision. It’s one of the elements of the dramaturgy – the weather and the nature – to amplify or reduce the emotion. It’s normal. The weather is good composition for the actors and for the characters as well as the feelings.
Houria receives a severe cut on her face, and she lashes out in anger and frustration after seeing it in the mirror. It eventually heals, and later, we see her stare at her reflection in costume and make-up. The scar is still there, but less noticeable. In some ways, it symbolises Houria’s way of moving on from the trauma, yet still acknowledging that it changed her forever. Though, in other ways, it also appears to depict how external beauty is connected with accepting and healing yourself. Could you reflect on this for us?
For the scene when Lyna looks at herself in the mirror and sees the scar, she spent about an hour and a half with us, and we saw all the transformation. In the beginning she’s very young, and by the end, she’s had a very strong journey to transform all this darkness into something positive. When she looks at herself she changes, and all the symbolism of the movie is about how to move on from childhood to adulthood. It’s all about transformation. In the beginning, she is living with her mother, and she’s her mother’s student. She’s oppressed. By the end, when she looks at herself, she is a choreographer. She’s grown up; she’s an adult now, and there’s a transformation in her person.
What is important is how we portrayed Houria before and after the accident. After the accident, she is stronger. She uses these very bad things to grow up, to find inspiration, to nourish her personality, and to nourish her way of working. She creates after the trauma. She creates her own choreography. She is stronger in the end than before the accident.
The costuming is beautiful. I’m curious. Houria’s white dress is a recurring piece that she wears throughout the film. We see it getting damaged but also shine during uplifting scenes. It is obviously a visual choice that we begin to see after the end of the Swan Lake performances. It’s as if the essence of being a ballerina lived through Houria via her continued dancing and the white dress. How do you view the journey of Houria from a classically and technically trained ballet dancer to an emotionally and culturally trained dancer?
This transformation is vital to me. Houria starts in white, which is very classical. She also starts in very tight shoes but by the end, she’s barefoot. She’s completely free. There is African percussion and there is something very organic, very tribal. This is the liberation of the actor, the liberation of the character. She spends the whole journey and adventure with the audience. You live with her; you start with something very white and you finish with something very shiny, very free.
It’s her story of emancipation and liberation from her mother, from classical dance, where everybody is the same and has the same dress code, neck and feet. In the end, everybody and everything is very different, and you confirm your identity, your specificity. This is the difference, and for me, it was all about finding in ourselves the strongest things we had and confirm it – not needing to be ashamed. You need to confirm these changes. The differences are your strongest aspects, and this is the message of the movie. Even though Houria has a disability at the end, she is stronger than before.
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