(Philippe Faucon, France/Canada, 2015) 79 minutes


Director: Philippe Faucon
Producers: Philippe Faucon,
  Yasmina Faucon, Serge Noël
Screenplay: Philippe Faucon,
  from books by Fatima Elayoubi
Cinematography: Laurent Fenart
Editor: Sophie Mandonnet
Music: Robert Marcel Lepage
Soria Zeroual (Fatima)
Zita Hanrot (Nesrine)
Kenza Noah Aïche (Souad)
Chawki Amari (Le père)
Dalila Bencherif (Leila)
Edith Saulnier (Séverine)
Corinne Duchesne (La propriétaire appartement)
Emir El Guerfi (Copain Sélim)

Reviews and notes

2015 Cannes, Helsinki, Rio, Warsaw
2016 Portland, Maine, Wellington

Philippe Faucon’s Fatima, the richly deserving winner of this year’s César (the French Oscar) for best film, is an acute and moving depiction of mother-daughter relationships. The film is based on the poetry and short prose collections Prayer to the Moon and Finally, I can walk alone by Fatima Elayoubi, published in Arabic in France. Fatima (Soria Zeroual), the apparently unassuming author, is a divorced Algerian woman bringing up two teenage daughters in Lyon, working as a cleaner to pay for their education. The oldest, 18-year-old Nesrine (Zita Hanrot), is the embodiment of her mother’s aspirations, determined to make it to medical school and batting off all potential distractions in the meantime. Souad (Kenza-Noah Aïche), 15, could hardly be more different, resentful of the sacrifices made for her older sister, and contemptuous of their mother’s apparent servility. The embattled Fatima finds herself defending both girls against the criticisms of conservative Arab neighbours, fearing the worst for them and hoping for the best. This quiet, modestly realised film accumulates considerable emotional power before leaving us at a moment of exquisitely nuanced satisfaction.
- Bill Gosden, NZIFF 2016.

Parents who emigrate for the sake of their children are often making a devil's bargain they're not aware of. Freedom and opportunity are doubtless there for sons and daughters, but the hidden cost can be a demoralizing social and cultural gap between the generations, a distance the insightful Fatima beautifully investigates.

Finely directed by France’s Philippe Faucon, whose films do not regularly get American distribution, and running a focused 79 minutes, Fatima was the surprise winner of that country's 2016 Cesar for best picture (besting such favorites as Arnaud Desplechin’s My Golden Years and the Oscar-nominated Mustang) as well as Cesars for adapted screenplay and most promising actress for Zita Hanrot.

Part of the reason for Fatima’s victory was no doubt its timeliness, with immigration and its attendant anxieties being very much the issue of the moment worldwide.

But Fatima is noteworthy not because of its subject matter but because of the skill with which it’s been adapted by writer-director Faucon, who loosely based his script on Prayer to the Moon, a collection of poems and musings by an émigré named Fatima Elayoubi.

Faucon, whose own grandparents came to France without speaking the language, has a gift for artfully removing the melodrama from potentially overheated situations, leaving behind a scenario that is honest, direct and dramatic without any sense of special pleading or situations pushed too hard.

The Fatima of the title (well-played by non-professional Soria Zeroual) is a woman who immigrated to the Lyon area from Algeria. Divorced from her husband, she lives only for her two teenage daughters and the menial work as a part-time cleaner that makes their life in France and her dreams for their future possible.

The two sisters could not be more different. Eighteen-year-old Nesrine (Cesar winner Hanrot) is serious and studious, determined to let nothing get in her way as she begins the first of seven grueling years in medical school. Her younger sibling, 15-year-old Souad (Kenza Noah Aiche), is fierce and rebellious, given to flirting with random guys on public transportation and, though she hides it from her mother as well as she can, not doing well in school at all.

We meet this trio in Fatima’s opening vignette, where, accompanied by her sister and her mother, Nesrine and a friend are trying to rent an apartment near the medical school. But when the landlord sees Fatima in a head scarf, the possibility evaporates. Giving Fatima a hard time about this and about everything in general, is Souad, who resents her mother's menial existence, bitingly calling her “a living rag” and saying things like, “I’m sick of this stupid life.”

Though Nesrine is much more respectful, her life has problems as well. She's worried that the cost of her education will be too much for her divorced parents, worried that she can't keep up with the school's demanding workload, worried about the responsibility she feels to succeed at all costs.

Fatima, who would do anything to help, finds that there are barriers. Her French is imperfect, as is her knowledge of the country's customs and laws. That leaves her children, as she is painfully aware, almost hermetically sealed away from her in a universe she cannot access. The mother's only consolation is her notebook, in which she writes her thoughts in lyrical Arabic that is a world away from her rudimentary French.

Though this may sound schematic, Fatima surprises you at every turn as all three women deal with the worry born of immigration that pervades each of their lives.

For one thing, the French bureaucracy, from the people who give remedial language classes to the medical establishment, are not the devils usually seen on screen but people genuinely trying to help. And one of the biggest problems Fatima and her daughters face is not from xenophobic natives but from fellow immigrants who seem jealous of the small success the little family has achieved.

Low key though it is, Fatima has moments of real and lasting drama as well as the conviction that these stories have value. Though it may be an axiom of cinema, as director Faucon says in an interview, that “a falling tree makes more noise than a growing forest,” in this film he intended to “tell the story of the growing forest” and show just how dramatic that can be.
- Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times, 15 September 2016.

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