Featured in the Migration Series, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 13–16, 2017
César Award for Best Film
César Award for Best Film
Fatima, Nesrine, and Souad
A Moroccan woman, age 44, named Fatima (Souria Zeroual), works herself to exhaustion as a cleaner in Lyon, France, in order support herself and her two daughters, the elder Nesrine (Zita Hanrot) commencing medical school, and the younger, Souad (Kenza Noah Aïche), finding adolescence an angry struggle.
From the film’s first moments, we witness how Fatima and Nesrine are discriminated against when they meet a realtor to rent an apartment for Nesrine. Although Nesrine and her future roommates speak French and dress in jeans and t-shirts, it is Fatima’s lack of the language and her traditional head scarf that cause the discrimination.
The movie jumps from scene to scene following the lives of the three women: Fatima at her various cleaning jobs where she also faces discrimination; Nesrine as she stresses over her first-year studies; and Souad as she drifts with the angry fringe, eventually skipping school and causing a showdown with her mother.
Fatima and Nesrine are close collaborators in Nesrine’s ambitious future. We feel their flow of love, loyalty, and respect. In contrast, Fatima and Souad clash at every encounter, even when Fatima makes a special effort to be the tender, giving mother she is at heart. Souad, like so many teenagers, lashes out, says regrettable things, such as how embarrassing it is to have a mother who’s a cleaner. “You’re a she-donkey, you're useless.”
The degree of stress the three women experience as a result of being immigrants in France can be felt by the viewer: Fatima’s frustration raising Souad, and her exhaustion cleaning night and day, despite her deep pride in Nesrine’s future as a doctor; Nesrine’s anxiety about passing her exams, and at one point breaking down and crying: “I can’t drop out, I couldn’t tell my mother I failed”; and Souad, dreading a life that seems to hold no future for her besides the abhorrent cleaning of her mother.
Fatima is a deep and committed human being, never shedding responsibility. She lives by her religious code, while her daughters are liberated French women, another cause for the women’s stress. Fatima’s former husband (Chawki Amari) has a new wife but keeps in touch with his daughters and contributes to Nesrine’s education—or so we are told by Fatima, when she assures Nesrine of her own willingness to go to any extent to finance medical school. This means working several jobs and selling her heirloom jewelry. Souad relates better to her dad and confides her worries to him. In one scene she cries that she’d rather go to jail than clean like her mother: “Mum’s a slave.”
On top of her cleaning jobs, Fatima cooks and delivers a week’s worth of meals to Nesrine and returns home with Nesrine’s laundry. Fatima’s face always bears an expression of placid determination to bear her lot. The press of her lips shows us her resignation, but also her pride in being able to help her daughters. As an audience, we bear the weight of her world, respect and admire her, and feel tears sting our eyes when her reward finally comes.
In rare moments before bed, Fatima writes in her diary: “City life is cold, heartless, it’s only about earning for bread,” or “My daughter and her friends live in a world that’s French, and I don’t speak French, which is why we’re looked down upon. We are not respected. It’s destroying our children.”
One day at work, Fatima takes a bad fall down the stairs, and we the audience not only feel her physical pain but immediately wonder how she’ll survive without work. Luckily, she goes on paid leave, but after five months the assistance runs out. At this point she’s sent to another doctor who speaks Arabic and turns out to be a sympathetic woman. The movie’s incisive moments happen at this juncture, when on subsequent visits to the woman doctor, Fatima brings her diary and reads aloud from it. (The movie is loosely based on Fatima Elayoubi’s autobiographical poems, Prière à la lune [Prayer to the Moon]). One passage from the diary, about cleaning for a bourgeois woman, poignantly clinches the movie’s raison d’être and further illuminates our understanding of an immigrant’s experience:
That woman would not go to work without some Fatima.
She couldn’t buy scent or fine clothes without some Fatima.
She couldn’t earn her living or have a future,
have a fine pension, without some Fatima.
Every day that woman entrusts her keys, her home, her kids,
to some Fatima.
She can see a friend, go to the shops,
because there is some Fatima.
She comes home at night to a house with five rooms,
two bathrooms cleaned by Fatima between 8 am and 6 pm.
The house is clean, tidy, ready.
At night Fatima goes home.
Nothing is ready.
Cleaning, cooking, daughters await.
A second day begins,
which is why one day, Fatima collapses.
Don’t be angry.
When one parent is hurt, a child is angry.
Only this time be proud.
Be proud of all the Fatimas
who clean working women’s homes.