Algerian filmmaker Salah Issaad first met Soula Bahri, the co-writer and subject of his debut feature Soula, in 2011, during one particularly cold winter night in Batna.
Bahri was 17, pregnant and homeless. She had been ostracised by her family for carrying a child out of wedlock and had nowhere to go. Her friends, most of whom came from conservative families themselves, couldn’t offer her a place to stay, and she had to spend most of her days getting in and out of their cars.
“The first time I met her was similar to the way we see her in the film,” Issaad said during a discussion that followed Soula’s screening at the Amman International Film Festival. “A friend of a friend of a friend brought her to us. She didn’t know where to go so she came to stay with us in the car. Her story immediately inspired me.”
The two struck up a close friendship, and Bahri would often call Issaad when she was uncertain of where to go.
“She’d phone me at 3 or 4 in the morning,” he said. “I couldn’t bring her home, so we’d end up driving around.”
After studying cinema and filmmaking in France, Issaad approached Bahri about adapting her story in film and the two began a creative partnership, writing the script of Soula together. The film follows Bahri as she looks for a safe location for herself and her child, but is instead caught in a series of tragic events along the roads of Algeria.
“Her story stayed with me,” Issaad said. “When I decided to make a feature film, this was the story I wanted to tell. From a technical standpoint, I knew all we needed were cars and actors. The production conditions were ideal for a young director and wouldn’t need a big budget. I funded it with my own money.”
Most of the events in Soula are based on Bahri’s lived experiences, albeit condensed into a single night. The characters that appear in Soula are also based on real people, and though they are portrayed by actors, Bahri herself takes on the lead role.
“Even as we were writing the script, she’d read the lines with emotion,” Issaad said. “Seeing her read, I knew no one else could take on the role of Soula.”
The film veers off from Bahri’s lived experiences in its final stretch, and a title screen briefly appears to demarcate fact from fiction. The film ends on a sombre and poetic note, which confronts the societal standards that pushed Soula, and many women like her, to homelessness and despair.
Given its subject matter, Soula is not an easy watch. The film’s unflinching depiction of the tragic moments Bahri endured, however, does not feel gratuitous. The anxiety and discomfort it instils feel necessary, a visceral glimpse at a reality often sidelined and silenced.
Bahri’s life is now much more secure, Issaad said. She is a mother of three and her eldest child, who inspired the baby in the film, is now a bright girl who is at top of her class. Bahri herself is pursuing a career in filmmaking and has written a short script that Issaad described as “absolutely incredible.”
Yet, there are many women across the Middle East who have not had such opportunities.
Growing up, Issaad said he had often heard about young single mothers who were left to fend for themselves after being rejected by their families in the name of honour. In fact, Issaad was only 10 when he and a group of friends stumbled upon a baby who had been abandoned in a box.
“There is no doubt that he was a child born out of wedlock. His mother must have felt like she had no choice but to leave him. Perhaps if we did not find him, the baby would have died,” he said. “We took the baby to a friend’s mother, who then called the police.”
The film may not directly ease their plight, but by bringing attention to the experiences and tribulations of a single mother in Algeria, it could have a ripple effect.