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Nora El Hourch Sisterhood HLM Pussy Review

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Sisterhood (HLM Pussy) | 2023 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review

Sisterhood (HLM Pussy) | 2023 Toronto Intl. Film Festival Review

Nora El Hourch’s Fiery Sisterhood is La Haine for the #MeToo Generation

Arriving like a molotov cocktail thrown through a plate glass window — or more accurately, like a hashtag gone viral — Nora El Hourch makes an unforgettable first impression with her fiery feature debut Sisterhood. Where La Haine became a cinematic, mid-90s touchstone with its gritty, unblinking depiction of France’s racial tensions, El Hourch’s picture may do the same for this generation as they take hold of the next wave of feminism and the #MeToo movement and pull it into the future.

The much better, and more provocative French title, HLM Pussy, gives a better sense of the context of the picture’s electric charge. Amina (Léah Aubert), Djeneba (Médina Diarra), and Zineb (Salma Takaline) are inseparable fifteen year-old best friends with big personalities to match. Dismissed by a classmate as the nut job (Amina), the brute (Djeneba), and the nun (Zineb), the insult doesn’t land as the trio, with self-confident brio, turn the monikers into a single, empowering description for themselves: HLM Pussy. HLM stands for habitation à loyer modéré — a low-income housing project — and as the for the latter, it’s a way for the teens to take ownership of their sexuality in an environment when the boys around them have become transparent, and sometimes frighteningly so, about their intentions.

Nora El Hourch Sisterhood HLM Pussy Review

It’s during a party one night when everything changes for the girls: Zineb is cornered in a bathroom by her brother Farid’s (Adam Hafsia) friend Zak (Oscar Al Hafiane) who frequents her home with the comfort of another family member. He’s harbored a long, and at times scary obsession with Zineb that she’s so far navigated around without making trouble with her brother. But after Zak backs her against the sink and kisses her, and Amina and Djeneba find Zineb crying in her bedroom, they decide to take action. With Amina and Djeneba hiding in the shower, Zineb calls Zak back to the bathroom where, on camera, she makes it clear she’s not interested romantically. Zak physically persists as Zineb pushes him away, and in a final plea, he brags that he’ll provide for her by either ratting out or killing Karim, the dealer he works for. The next day, Zineb is hesitant to release the video but Amina, frustrated and seeking accountability, posts the clip on Instagram on her own, under the account name HLM Pussy, with Zak’s voice altered and face hidden.

Nora El Hourch Sisterhood HLM Pussy Review

The video becomes a sensation but it opens up deep fissures between the girls as Zak demands they delete the video, albeit more concerned with what isn’t shown — his threats agastin Karim. But even as the repercussions escalate, Amina refuses, standing fast by her convictions. Soon, she’s ostracized by both Zineb and Djeneba, without realizing that her class privilege and the fact she’s not the victim, who still has to see her attacker almost every day, affords her a protected level of outrage. Amina — the child of an Arabic surgeon (Mounir Margoum) and French lawyer (Bérénice Bejo) — is quickly shunted by her parents half a year early to a posh lycée to keep her safe. Zineb and Djeneba, who actually live in the HLM, are afforded no such luxuries and Amina’s continual refusal to take down the video — which garners increasing views, likes, and comments — leaves them more and more exposed.

At times, the script by El Hourch can seem like a mess, a murky hot take on sexual politics that appears written to dance around the inevitable social media discourse the film is bound to unleash. The director is unafraid to spend much of the picture letting her characters float in the middle ground of thorny questions surrounding sexual assault and justice without circling toward a conclusive point of view. But just when you think El Hourch will back out of the picture without making a statement of her beliefs, she needle drops the climatic moments of the film with “.E.S” by Inigo Montoya! which opens with the following unequivocal words by Chilean feminist art group Collectif Lastesis:

The patriarchy is a judge, who judges us by being born
and our punishment is the violence you don’t see.

The patriarchy is a judge, who judges us by being born
and our punishment is the violence that you see.

Early in HLM Pussy, Amina and Djeneba cock and fire finger guns pointed at the camera in a sequence that echoes the famed mirror scene in La Haine. There is no subtlety about El Hourch’s hopes for the place her film will occupy within the French cinematic canon in the years to come. Such ambition is rare, but even more rare is the film with something to say that might actually just live up to its lofty aspirations.

Reviewed on September 11th at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival – Platform Programme. 101 Mins.

★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Kevin Jagernauth is a Montreal-based film critic and writer. Kevin has written professionally about music and film for over 15 years, most prominently as Managing Editor of The Playlist, where he continues to contribute reviews, and he has recently joined The Film Verdict as a Contributing Critic. Kevin has attended and covered a wide range of festivals including Cannes, TIFF, Fantasia, Savannah, and more. On a consultative basis, Kevin provides script coverage for feature-length independent and international films. He is also the co-founder and co-programmer of Kopfkino, a monthly screening series of cult classics and contemporary favorites that ran from 2017-2020 in Montreal.

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