‘Fatima’: Philippe Faucon’s insightful account of an immigrant Muslim mother living in France

Fatima is raising her two teenage daughters in Lyon, having migrated from North Africa to marry a man from whom she is now divorced.  She has two cleaning jobs to support Nesrine who has just started Medical School and Nesrine’s younger sister Souad, a sulky high school student. Nesrine is her mother’s hope for the future, committed to her studies to the extent that she rebuffs the attentions of suitors. Souad is more interested in hanging out with her girl pals and goading young men than her school work and is ashamed of her mother’s lowly job and poor French.

This prize-winning film is based on “Prière à la lune” (“Prayer to the Moon”) written by Fatima Elayoubi, who herself migrated to France, where she gradually taught herself French. Directed, produced and written by Philippe Faucon, who spent his childhood in Morocco and Algeria, this low-key film offers an intimate portrait of the daily lives of Fatima and her daughters; preparing food, travelling on public transport, studying, writing, working, sleeping and sulking. As well as being an intimate and affectionate portrait of immigrant women’s lives, there is a story here for those interested in medicine’s role in society. Descriptions of this film as ‘modest but engrossing’,  ‘gentle, affecting’ and ‘a small miracle’ are appropriate: it is well worth seeing.

No imminent jeopardy drives this film, beyond the usual challenges of a migrant working parent: will Souad be thrown out of school for her poor grades? Will Nesrine cram enough medical terminology to pass her exams? Will Fatima learn French? Tensions between Fatima, who wears a headscarf and speaks Arabic, and her French-speaking daughters, are recognisably those of any parent and their young adult offspring. The racism from employers and landlords that punctuates daily life is ever-present but not over-bearing and the women manage it with dignity. Everyday racism is coped with, but is never the most important or determining aspect of daily life. Similarly, gossipy neighbours who see Fatima and her daughters as uppity, are treated with gentle disregard, leaving everyone’s dignity and self-respect more-or-less intact.

The closest the film does get to jeopardy is Fatima falling down the stairs while at work and seriously injuring her arm. The French national health and social security systems are shown as humane in caring for the injured woman and her family. When Nesrine is overwhelmed by her studies the family doctor offers friendly encouragement to persist and Fatima gets sick pay while her broken bones mend. After the professionals have pronounced her injury recovered, Fatima experiences persistent pain such that she cannot work. The doctor’s response is to refer Fatima for consultation with an Arabic-speaking doctor.

In convalescence Fatima writes, nightly, in Arabic, reflecting over her life and her lot. She reads these thoughts aloud to the doctor that understands Arabic, explaining or at least describing her pain in the context of her life and in her own language.  There is no tidy resolution of Fatima’s pain and no suggestion that she is being forced back to work.

Unlike Ken Loach’s accounts of marginal lives, Fatima is not portrayed as desperate, although she has minimal social and financial support. The lack of desperation and drama leaves space not only for dignity but also for the slow process of healing to play out in this short film. This is social realism, but unlike Loach’s vision, Faucon offers a vision of a world where trust in the institutions of medicine and social security remains intact. In this respect, in failing to criticise the institutional context of Fatima’s life the film risks being unrealistic.

But by focussing on the daily struggles and tensions between characters, the film offers space to see how recovery can be achieved: a marginalised woman who has both self-belief and the ability to reflect, is given the time to figure out her own recovery.  The film is an illustration of why medical professionals should not police the boundaries of recovery for the world of work. It is also an argument for social security as indispensible for withstanding the insults of low-paid labour.

The film ends with Fatima returning to the noticeboard where she has already witnessed Nesrine’s exam results being posted, to confirm her daughter’s success. Fatima’s pleasure at the result is also her “intifada” or uprising. Fatima’s ability to support her daughters in Lyon is a hard-won triumph, but there is no triumphalism. Her injury, like the casual racism, is lived through with dignity and hope survives.  Fatima’s recovery is to be seen in her daughter’s success – a cure that will never be available on prescription but that might be supported by access to education and sick pay.