Words are empowering. Communication of one’s complex thoughts, strong opinions and numbing sorrows enables us to bond with others undergoing in similar experiences.

In Philippe Faucon’s Fatima, which won the French César Award for Best Picture earlier this year, the human need for expression is truncated by a language barrier that prevents an immigrant woman from reaching out to her daughters beyond menial conversations. Inspired by Fatima Elayoubi’s recollections in her books Prière à la Lune and Enfin, Je peux marcher seule, Faucon’s social realist narrative centers on the fractured relationship between the eponymous Fatima (first-timer Soria Zeroual), an Algerian domestic worker in France, and her children, a pair of young women conflicted between their French identity and the traditions and societal norms that bind them to their mother’s homeland.

Unable to put into words her emotional turmoil, borne of being an unseen figure within French society, Fatima speaks her mind in their form of poems and prose, which she writes in Arabic in a notebook whenever she gets a rest from her arduous work. Her daughters, on the other hand, have dilemmas of their own as children of immigrants. Nesrine (Zita Hanrot), the eldest, is attending medical school, and believes that failure would mean disrespecting her mother’s endless sacrifices. On the other hand, Souad (Kenza Noah Aïche) is much more attached to her father, feels ashamed of what Fatima does for a living and often dismisses her Algerian roots. Yet the power of Fatima’s writing is that it transcends latitudes.

MovieMaker interviewed director, screenwriter and producer Faucon about a film that feels ever more relevant to  contemporary audiences both in France and elsewhere.

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): What was your initial motivation to pursue a film about a character like Fatima, who represents a group of people often dismissed or overlooked?

Philippe Faucon (PF): The initial inspiration really came from the book by Fatima Elayoubi—which is not a novel; it’s really a diary of her intimate life as an immigrant. She is a woman who arrives in France without knowing the French language, and without documents, so her first opportunity to work is to work in people’s homes as a cleaning woman. Then in France she has two daughters, who grew up speaking French. What happens is, as they grow up, there’s a chasm between the communication in language between the mother and the two daughters. As they grow up, they’re very much French-centric in their language, and when she speaks to them half in Arabic and half in French, she has a very hard time communicating the subtle things and the intimate things. So instead of saying them, she would write them in her journal. She wrote all the things that were on her heart, even sometimes as a poem. The book was born from that linguistic challenge that she had communicating with her daughters, and her desire to express all these things. I found the book, and that really was the inspiration for the basis for the film.

MM: What kind of research was involved in order to laced the film with naturalism and authenticity? Did you meet Fatima Elayoubi herself or other domestic workers to get a sense of what their lives are like?

PF: I had a personal connection with the book. My grandparents immigrated to France from Spain, and did not speak French at all, so my parents, who were first-generation, experienced a lot of same things that the characters in the film experience. My grandparents would speak to me in Spanish, and I would respond in French. I had a very personal connection with that separation of language and generation. There was a resonance there.

In terms of the story itself, I met with the author, and one of the daughters—the eldest was living in Morocco—and we had many conversations about her life, about the conditions of her work, about the difficulty of being understood in French society and even at home. The theme of being invisible, both in the external world and also at home, of being out of work or to not be able to communicate, those are the things we would discuss and that I learned from.

Soria Zeroual plays Fatima in the film, a loose adaptation of Fatima Elayoubi's books

Soria Zeroual plays Fatima in the film, a loose adaptation of Fatima Elayoubi’s books

MM: With your lead actress, Soria Zeroual, can you describe the casting process and the work you did with her to prepare her for the role?

PF: The big challenge of finding the right person for this role was that the woman is a woman who speaks very poor French. So looking for actresses through the normal ways, through casting agents, we found that it was actually very hard for even an accomplished actress, who perhaps has the same origins culturally as the character but speaks French perfectly, to pull off the accent of someone who doesn’t speak well.

It’s actually very complicated and it doesn’t sound natural. We did test some talented actresses but it didn’t feel right. It became clear that we would have to look for somebody who was in the exact same situation as the character herself. That meant going through associations, neighborhoods, and trying to meet people, which is not an easy thing to do. Also, just because you are that character in real life, doesn’t mean that you can reproduce that in front of a camera, with all the pressures of the set.

We really had a hard time finding someone until Soria showed up, and revealed that she had the ability and the intelligence. She didn’t do too much or too little, and it became clear that she would be the right choice. Shooting the film was very intense, the days are very full, and so there was a rehearsal process. She had to understand the technical aspects of it, and be introduced to the actresses who played the daughters, so they would be familiar with each other. We did a fair amount of work before shooting. It’s not enough to just say “play yourself,” because it’s actually very hard to do. She had to learn all the technical parts, such as how do you hit your mark and your blocking without looking down, and making it feel natural. All the technical parts of acting had to be acquired, but she seemed to integrate all of that very well, and she worked throughout the shooting, and impressed me daily on the set.

MM: Every one of the performances in the film is very naturalistic and nuanced. While on set, do you allow for improvisation or do you prefer to strictly follow what’s on the page? In your experience what yields better results?

PF: Soria is not a trained actress, and for the two young actresses playing the daughters, this was their first experience making a movie as well, so the techniques were a little bit different. With Soria, I couldn’t ask her to do something that she just wasn’t capable of. If something wasn’t working, I would just ask her to use her own experiences, her own intuition and intelligence, and I would set aside what I had written for the scene, and allow her to bring whatever she could that was natural to her and her life. I was OK with leaving some of the things I had written behind.

In a similar way, with the two younger actresses, if something was not feeling right when they were acting directly from the script, I would give them room to improvise, and to use their creativity as young actresses. Because all that really mattered was that the characters felt like they were becoming real, and that they were taking on their own lives, so I used whatever means we had to get there. I was prepared to let go of some of what I had already written to bring the characters to life.

MM: In the film, Fatima’s two daughters have a complex cultural identity. They’re too French to be Algerian, and too Algerian to be French. They’re in an in-between world. Why was it important for you to portray their experience as well, as the children of immigrants?

PF: The two girls are completely between two worlds. It’s a topic I already explored in a previous film, Samia [2000], about a girl born from Algerian immigrant parents. But in this film, the interesting part of these girls is their adolescence, which is already a time where you are defining your identity. That’s very complicated, and if you have double cultures, it adds another layer of complication. The younger of the two daughters has more of a struggle to know where her place is, where her class is, and where she fits. It’s like that for everybody, but for children of immigrants, it really becomes more pronounced. Although she, at this time, does not appreciate her culture, she will realize later on in her life that she has double the richness—but at this point in the story, it’s something that she’s struggling with.

Zeroual and Zita Hanrot (as Nesrine) in Fatima

Zeroual and Zita Hanrot (as Nesrine) in Fatima

MM: On the other hand, the oldest daughter doesn’t want to fail. She feels the need to succeed. That’s also very much a common feeling of being the child of an immigrant. You have to do right by your parents to honor their sacrifices.

PF: Yes, her having to succeed at any cost was a dimension I really wanted to explore, and fit within the story when you put all the characters side by side. I had conversations with the author of the book, and it was very important to her that her daughter succeeded. She had been denied an education herself, so the fact that she was the one who could create the circumstances for her daughter to succeed was paramount.

The character of Fatima in the film cannot let go. She cannot flinch. She is very rigid, very obstinate, and she cannot fail, because she is entirely responsible for the material well-being of her daughters. That’s why she has her accident at work, because she’s wearing blinders—she is so focused. In many ways the older daughter is very similar. She’s carrying that weight on her shoulders. She has the same kind of frigidity and relentlessness. Her studies are expensive, and come at the cost of a lot of effort, so she cannot fail either.

MM: I know that the film was made before the current political and social situation in France emerged, but do you feel that, today, the fact that the film portrays immigrants as introspective, invaluable contributors to society is more important than ever in the context of French politics and culture?

PF: The importance of this story and the books by Fatima Elayoubi is that these are characters that are generally absent from the screen in France and from film in general. This is disproportionate to their actual place in the functioning of French society and their value. Usually in film, when you look at immigrant characters, their stories take place in the projects and are about difficulties, failures, violence, drugs or terrorism. Those things do have a place in the reality of French society, but that is not the whole picture. There are many other dimensions that are just as real—and more so. These types of characters lack representation. They are the people that get up at five o’clock in the morning to pick up the trash or to clean houses. This film was an effort to bring this people out of the shadows and onto the screen. MM

Fatima opens in Los Angeles theaters September 16, 2016 (previously in New York on August 26) courtesy of Kino Lorber.