Fatima, Directed by Philippe Faucon
Fatima is an understated film about the French immigrant experience. Named for its central role, it’s a story about one woman (Soria Zeroual) who holds everything together even as her family and livelihood crumble. Pressures of cultural circumstance mount on the Moroccan immigrant as she works long hours cleaning other people’s houses and raises two young women in a country not exactly her own. Balancing her native Moroccan culture with the French, one dear to her and the other more familiar to her children, she negotiates her own role in new circumstances. She integrates, but on her own terms.
Fatima cleans houses for rich families and companies’ large interior spaces. She begins her work early in the morning and does not return home until late at night. Then she has her own family to take care of, cleaning her own house and cooking for her two daughters. After her divorce, it’s up to her to support herself and her children. She speaks Arabic fluently in the dialect of her native Morocco, which she uses to converse with the Arabic community in her neighbourhood. And although she understands French, she does not speak it fluently nor read its alphabet — very different from the cursive Arabic script which fills her private diary. She also speaks mostly Arabic to her two daughters, who understand her but respond in the French they’ve grown up with. Like their mother with French, the girls understand Arabic but don’t express themselves in it. And like their mother with the French alphabet, the girls cannot read the Arabic script.
Nesrine (Zita Hanrot), the older of the daughters, is starting medical school in the fall. She has won grants to help afford it, but it’s only enough for half of the cost. Fatima, who works hard for her money even without trying circumstances, offers to help her daughter afford the university’s tuition and rent for an apartment near the university. While her older daughter aspires to be a doctor and works diligently to that end, Fatima’s younger daughter, Souad (Kenza Noah Aïche), is less interested in her studies. She’s a troublemaker at school, constantly clashing with her teachers and more interested in new shoes and boys than in doing her schoolwork. Her teachers complain to Fatima, but the French complicates these parent-teacher discussions. While Fatima tends to understand the gist of what is being said, when the conversation gets too complicated it becomes difficult for her to understand, let alone express her own views. ‘I didn’t speak like the other women’, she confides to her friend in Arabic at one of her cleaning jobs. ‘That’s what lack of schooling does’.
These three women — Fatima, Nesrine, and Souad — are of different generations with different ambitions, but they are all part of a process of assimilation. From the subtle tensions within the family, to the Moroccan expatriate community, to the greater French society, they respond to the challenge differently. Fatima struggles to get by without speaking French well, so she takes classes after work. Fuelled by her own ambition, she educates herself. The same is true of Nesrine, whose own ambition takes her to medical school and sleepless nights studying while her friends are out partying. They each negotiate their different identities: as French or Moroccan, as the daughters of Moroccan immigrants, as speakers of French or Arabic.
The daughters are undoubtedly French, but to their mother they are the children of her own Moroccan culture, subject to its rules and expectations. Values divide across culture as well as generation. Fatima, for example, is especially concerned with what the other women in the Arabic community will think of her family. When Souad tells her about a boy, Fatima disapproves because, according to her, the boy’s family is disreputable. For Fatima, the locus of judgement is the family, while for Souad, it’s just the boy. Fatima also scolds Souad for showing too much skin in an outfit for school. Showing shoulders isn’t a crime! is her daughter’s answer. ‘We’re a different generation’, she says. ‘Things have changed’.
Yet in her misbehaviour at school Souad also uses her culture to her own advantage, claiming to the principal that she skipped two days of class only because she had to: It would not have been possible for her to work whilst fasting for Ramadan. ‘Since when do you fast?’ scolds her mother when she finds out. Souad at once rejects the traditional views of her mother and capitalises on her cultural difference for her own devices. At the same time, she feels shame for what her mother does for a living, and disparages her for submitting herself to what she views as the indignity of cleaning other people’s homes. Caught between two very different cultures and sets of expectations, she lashes out against both.
Nesrine also struggles with her class identity at school, realising that her peers at the medical school have lived privileged lives alien to her own experience. It’s as if they inhabit a totally different world, she confides to her friend. She won’t go to the parties because these sons and daughters of doctors will ask what her mother does for a living — and what will she say? She speaks perfect French, but the colour of her skin and her family’s background still set her apart, subjecting her to discrimination (such as when she is turned down for an apartment) and a sense of separateness. The struggle to pay for her education looms over her, too. It seems like she’s always counting euros: at the grocery store, deciding against buying too much; at her apartment, counting cash over her schoolwork. She confides to her friend that she is petrified of failing her exams, not because she couldn’t simply retake the classes, but because doing so would increase her debt. She can’t afford to fail.
Like her sister, Nesrine also departs from her parent’s values. She scoffs at her father’s outdated comments about women with the contempt of a modern French feminist. When she complains to him about the gossiping Moroccan women — her mother’s friends — who disapprove of her snobby urban life as a student, her father’s advice is simple: ‘Just succeed’. But even with Nesrine’s countless hours of study, it’s not so easy. And even if she does succeed, the Moroccan community will still think she believes that she’s too good for them: too selfish to stay at home with her mother, too eager to abandon her roots and join the élite. At home she’s too snobby, at school she’s too humble. She is neither Arabic enough to please her community nor rich and French enough to demand equal respect. So she inhabits both worlds.
Fatima’s world shifts when she starts to change her perspective. In her French classes she begins to master the language which for her is the gatekeeper of power and discursiveness. But there is still a stark contrast between the private moments when she writes eloquent Arabic passages in her journal and the public moments when she falls silent in the presence of her French neighbours — not for lack of perspective, but lack of education. With her new language skills, she begins to stand up for herself. Her private journal becomes political and empowered. After so much struggle, she grows stronger. She realises the significance of her own Arabic culture within the greater scheme of the French one. She finds her voice.
Fatima works constantly to keep her family afloat and to help her children succeed, all the while enduring racism from people who disapprove of her headscarf or her accent. The great accomplishment of Fatima is to elevate the banal to the extraordinary, and the film’s strength is its subtlety. You’ll see yourself in the film, in the drama of everyday life, and it’s sometimes painful to watch. Fatima, a cleaning woman, is also a gifted writer in her native Arabic, an ambitious woman who educates herself despite her burdensome schedule, a loving mother for her daughters whatever the cost. Her monotonous cleaning routines contrast with her rich interior world. After getting to know her, when people disrespect her in public it will feel like a personal offence. How dare you! you’ll want to say to the white woman, a mother of one of Souad’s classmates, who ignores Fatima at the grocery store. When Fatima finally reaches her breaking point, it’s like an epic hero being mortally wounded. And against all odds, she gets up again.
Fatima is a call, at once subtle, unpretentious, and overpowering, for more humanity and kindness. Whilst studying for her very first exam, there’s a phrase which Nesrine repeats over and over in an attempt to get it to stick in her mind, and it points the way to the film’s basic truth: ‘The heart is the first organ to form’. ‘The heart is the first organ to form’. ‘The heart is the first organ to form’. ■
Runtime: 79 minutes
Genre: Dramatic Feature
Language: Arabic, French
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Fatima is based on the experience of the French writer Fatima Elayoubi. The film premiered at the Directors’ Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. It is the winner of the Lumières Award for Best Screenplay and the winner of three César Awards: Most Promising Actress for Zita Hanrot (Nesrine), Best Adapted Screenplay (written by the director, Philippe Faucon), and Best Film. (Soria Zeroual (Fatima) was also nominated at the César Awards for Best Actress.) Fatima screened as the opening night film of the 21st Boston French Film Festival at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in summer 2016. Find out more from the page for Fatima in the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).
Watch the trailer for Fatima:
Featured Image: Soria Zeroual as Fatima in ‘Fatima’, the opening night film of the Boston French Film Festival. Kino Lorber.