An unusually nuanced and unsentimental depiction of mother/daughter relationships, Philippe Faucon’s Fatima graced a strong Directors Fortnight slate which, if it lacked the sublimity of at least one film in the Competition (Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin), never descended into the ridiculousness of half the entries shown in the Competition. Faucon based his film on Prayer to the Moon, a collection of poems and short prose pieces by Fatima Elayoubi, published in Arabic in France. Like the film’s titular character, Elayoubi emigrated from North Africa to France where she worked such long hours as a house cleaner that she had no time to learn how to write and read in the language of her adopted country.
Director Philippe Faucon
Fatima Soria Zeroual
Nesrine Zita Hanrot
Souad Kenza-Noah Aiche
Similarly, the film’s Fatima (Soria Zeroual) takes multiple cleaning jobs in order to support her daughters, 18-year-old Nesrine (Zita Hanrot), a first-year pre-med student, and rebellious 15-year-old Souad (Kenza-Noah Aiche). She and her husband are divorced; the father’s only contribution to his daughters’ upbringing seems to be the occasional lunch and buying Souad a pair of Nikes. Fatima wants her daughters to integrate and succeed as French women, even at the cost of her own pride.
Shame and pride are inseparable in the family dynamic. Souad is ashamed to have a mother who is illiterate and takes menial jobs so she shames Fatima by calling her “a cleaning rag”. Fatima feels shame when the women she works with gossip about Souad for wearing tank tops and hanging out with boys. Nesrine suffers nearly paralysing anxiety preparing for her exams, fearing the shame that failure would bring to her mother and herself. But Fatima is resilient and her determination has rubbed off on her daughters.
Unlike Faucon’s previous film The Disintegration (2011), Fatima is not a downer. Rather, it is a film that brings clarity and even a sense of exhilaration to the struggle of mother and daughters to succeed on their own terms and for one another. A relatively inexperienced actor, Zeroual brings quiet strength and intelligence to her characterisation of Fatima, taking the film to another level with her reading of a poem by Elayoubi, filled with the longing to speak her experience in her own voice, the voice of Fatima.