One of the more off-the-beaten-path documentary selections at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, quite literally, was Hassen Ferhani’s 143 Sahara Street, a quiet portrait of an aging woman and her café bound to the barren Algerian landscape. Ferhani’s static observation bides time as if trying to replicate the slow moving daily routine of its subject, Malika, bearing witness as travelers pass through like a weather beaten rock lodged in the desert. And while that might sound like an unconscionably boring watch, in actuality, 143 Sahara Street is full of pleasant and often funny surprises, revealing a great amount of humanity in a setting that seems downright inhospitable.
Malika, who has long served as a requisite stop for truckers and travelers passing through the Sahara, exists in a perpetual state of waiting. She sits with her cat Mimi in a small unadorned adobe shack, which stands alone, back away from an unpaved desert highway, and doubly serves as her home and as a rest stop for weary travelers looking for refreshment and small talk. Though there is no signage or advertising, folks have been instinctively stopping there for years. Malika sells only the few things she’s able to cart back from the nearest village whenever she’s able to find a ride — tea, eggs, and cigarettes, sold only by the pack as one disappointed visitor finds out.
Episodic in nature and shot in serene long takes that rotate between the wind-whipped, sun-baked landscape and the open doored café interior, 143 Sahara Street unfolds in a series of visits from travelers who roll out of the desert and approach, confused about why someone is filming out in the middle of nowhere with an old woman in a shack. Yet, most relent to the camera’s presence and settle in with Malika’s disarming assurance. Some have been coming for years and stop specifically to catch up like old friends, while others are mystified that someone would intentionally live alone in the middle of the Sahara but thankful nonetheless to have found something to wet their palette and someone to share some time with.
The conversations that are captured, often broken among bits of Arabic and French, reveal an incredible sense of openness and respect amongst clashing cultures and discordant ideologies. This feeling lingers on even after guests have departed and Malika is left to reveal her true feelings about those whom she has just served. She doesn’t believe one man who claims that he is looking for his long lost brother, for instance. And she finds a chatty group of strangers incredibly disrespectful to essentially interrogate her about her background in her own home.
The most memorable guests do more than linger. One visitor comically makes use of the camera’s presence to invite Malika into playing out a scene through her barred window to appear as though he is speaking to her from a jail cell. Another, the only woman to stop, arrives by motorcycle suited up like a European action hero and shares photos of her life from her smartphone. You never know what you might encounter in the desert.
While Malika’s life is evidently one made by choice, it is obviously one of great physical hardship and frequent loneliness. Her legs and feet have swollen, making basic movement undoubtedly agonizing. Meanwhile, she frequently tells both her cat and her guests about how her relatives have ostracized her, leaving her to the sand and the heat. Meanwhile, a commercial competitor is slowly springing up from the desert in the form of a petrol station that poses a threat to her very livelihood, inducing an immense sense of looming dread for Malika. One can’t even escape the dog-eat-dog world of capitalism in the brutal heat at the center of the world’s largest desert.
Despite all this, 143 Sahara Street remains a warm, loving depiction of stubborn perseverance in which humanity seems to win the day in the ongoing war of free enterprise. One gets the sense that no matter what happens after the camera leaves, Malika will remain, like a stone born of the desert itself, immortal.