Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Featured in the Migration Series, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 13–16, 2017

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.

Fatima is a riveting film, brilliantly acted, and deeply relevant.

Fire at Sea

Featured in the Migration Series, at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, April 13–16, 2017
Golden Bear winner at the Berlin Film Festival

Lampedusa's Two Worlds


What’s most remarkable about Gianfranco Rosi’s film Fire at Sea, about African and Middle Eastern migrants precariously crossing the Mediterranean to Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa, is its low-key, quiet delivery. How can the film be so unflappably measured when such human drama and tragedy take place before our eyes? Since the early 2000s, some 400,000 migrants have tried to reach Europe via one of its closest portals—Lampedusa—only seventy miles from Tunisia.
Fire at Sea opens with two contrasting worlds that form the documentary’s structure: simple, fisherman life on a tiny, windblown island juxtaposed against the horrific ordeal of migrants risking their lives for a safer or better future. Never the twain do meet, and Rosi has called the island “a metaphor for Europe, for these two worlds that do not encounter each other.”
First we meet twelve-year-old Samuele, playing alone on the deserted, scrubby landscape, the sound of the sea in the distance. He finds the perfect branch for a sling-shot and begins whittling it into shape. The scene shifts to nighttime and a communications satellite at Lampedusa’s refugee center. “Your position please,” a professional voice keeps repeating, while a voice on the other end of the radio transmission pleads in desperation: “Help us! We’re sinking!” We then view a long shot of the refugee center on the island’s southern shoreline from a Coast Guard ship searching the water for the emergency.
We switch back to the islanders and their undisturbed lives and traditions. A young radio disc jockey plays popular songs for his listeners, including “Fire at Sea,” a World War II song about the bombing of an Italian warship in the harbor. Uneventful island life interchanges with the catastrophic situation at sea, with more time given to the islanders at first, with the migrant story unfolding by increment until we’re prepared for a long and graphic rescue segment, where dead bodies are pulled from the lower level of a boat, and the anguish of the survivors can’t be ignored. These are real faces, real moments in real people’s lives—families have lost loved ones, families have suffered unimaginable terror in their past and their present. It is just before this horrific scene that the sea’s horizon is a fiery orange, held by the camera for a long moment, perhaps symbolically.
While Samuele and his school friend shoot their sling-shots at cactuses or ride a scooter back and forth in the village, or hang out watching an old fisherman spool his lines, we also view an aging housewife in an immaculate kitchen prepare dinner. It may be that life for Lampedusa’s fishermen is fraught with danger at sea, but the world we witness on screen is safe, orderly, peaceful, and provided for.
It sharply contrasts to what other Italians are doing on the island on a daily basis—processing stunned refugees wearing foil blankets for warmth. On the rescue boats, the personnel wear white hazmat suits and direct the survivors to various parts of the boat, separating the sick and dying from the better off. Many refugees have been badly burned from leaking diesel fuel in the holds. We cannot help but think that the officials’ hands reaching out to those boarding the ship convey a humanitarian touch. They are akin to saviors. But what awaits the refugees in the no man’s land of the greater reception center is far from Samuele’s comfortable, hum-drum life. It’s a state of limbo and fear, and it’s heartbreaking to witness how human beings by nature still rally themselves in dire circumstances: One night the men in the center organize a soccer game and argue vociferously over which nationalities will play—Somalia, Sudan, Libya. But the game that ensues totally absorbs them, and they cheer and hug for joy when a team member scores a goal. In other scenes, the survivors call their relatives from phone booths, or they pray or sing together. One man uses his voice and rhythm to rap about his terrifying experiences—the raping and killing of many people, the lack of food, the thirty who were rescued but the rest who died.
Life goes on, on Lampedusa: Samuele checking out boats in the harbor and learning to row in preparation for his future at sea; the housewife making afternoon espresso for her silent seaman, their world following a regular, neat-as-a-pin routine, no blips on the radar screen. In another scene, the woman makes their bed, smoothing it to perfection, and then kisses the photo of her husband and afterward the room’s religious icons. Her world is spotless.
In this minimalist movie of silence and only natural sounds as they occur, Dr. Bartolo anchors the story by describing his long-term medical role with the refugees. He softly, wistfully relates how he has examined hundreds of corpses, many of them children, and treated the ill. In one long scene, he performs a sonogram on a pregnant woman survivor, and gently tells her what he’s seeing—a girl, a heart, twins. He tells us how the amniotic fluid is scarce in the pregnant women who make it to shore. He describes the boats, their various levels, and how those at the bottom level emerge in the worst shape, often with chemical burns, or dead from suffocation. Examining so many dead people “leaves you with emptiness,” he says in his melancholic way. “It makes you think.” Dr. Bartolo also treats the island’s residents, including Samuele, who has a lazy eye and suffers tension and worry, though in the film we don’t see this anxious side of him.
Juxtaposing the flaming horizon image that preceded the long rescue scene, a cool moon appearing through night clouds sets the stage for the movie’s finale—the continuity of life on Lampedusa: Samuele in the dark with a flashlight, making a bird call in a tree until a bird responds and boy and bird are face to face; the matronly housewife kissing her husband’s photo and saying, “Let me have a nice day”; the DJ playing lacrymose music; and later in the day, Samuele on the docks amusing himself with an imaginary machine gun that goes, “chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck-chuck.”
If there’s a refugee center on the island, with hundreds of people living and waiting for a place to call home, it is unknown to the island people and their way of life.