Fatima gives first-time actress starring role as an immigrant mother in France

When Soria Zeroual was first asked to be in the film, she declined. But after reading the script, she changed her mind because of how touched she was and how closely it resmbld her life.

Soria Zeroual, left, and Zita Hanrot in Fatima. Courtesy Pyramide Films
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Soria Zeroual is the most unusual star at Cannes. The 45-year-old actress was working for an agency providing home care to refugees in Lyon when she was approached to star in Philippe Faucon's Fatima, the story of an immigrant mother from North Africa struggling to raise her two daughters in France.

“I never imagined that I would be an actor,” says Zeroual, who is a mother of three boys. “At first I said no. But when I read the script, it really touched me and I saw that the story was something that was close to my own life. I understood it.”

The film is based on Prayer to the Moon, an autobiographical collection of poems, thoughts and other pieces of writing by Fatima Elayoubi. She worked as a cleaner while struggling to bring up two daughters on her own. Her transformation into an author came about when, one day, she began telling the story of her life to a friend, who wrote it down and encouraged Elayoubi to find a publisher. The film adaptation of the book shows cleaning lady Fatima doing her best to support her 18-year-old daughter, Nesrine, who is about to start medical school, while also trying to rein in Souad, a rebellious 15-year-old.

But family life is complicated because she cannot speak French very well, while her daughters struggle to speak Arabic. The youngest daughter chides her mother and starts to skip school. The eldest child struggles with the fact that although she’s getting good grades, she is being watched over by her community.

Then Fatima has an accident at work, resulting in an extended period of sick leave and she starts writing.

In contrast to the character she plays in the film, ZerouaI’s employers were happy to grant her time off to make the film.

“I took leave from work and they were very content for me,” she says. She was given a month to prepare and rehearse for the role.

Faucon says he was looking for a non-professional actor to play the role because there were few actors in France of North African descent who could speak Arabic and also struggle with French. At Zeroual’s screen test, Faucon knew he had found his leading lady.

“I was struck by Zeroual’s ability to perform and her actor’s instinct,” he says. “If you gave her instructions, she would immediately take them on board and adapt her performance.” At first, Zeroual says: “I was scared of the bright lights from behind the camera.

“Philippe and his crew gave me support and the courage to try again. We had a lot of rehearsals. Because of the rehearsals, when I was on set I forgot my fears and was able to lose myself in the performance.”

Zeroual didn’t meet the ­real-life Fatima until she arrived in Cannes. Up until then, she had only ever seen a photo of the ­author.

“Philippe didn’t want me to meet her,” says the actress, although Faucon says Fatima was in Morocco at the time of casting and was not near the set, in Lyon, so there was no real opportunity.

“We only met yesterday and I wish that I had met her before, as that would have changed my performance,” says Zeroual.

After just one role, Zeroual is already sounding like an experienced professional.

Tears rolled down the author’s cheeks as she talked about the hardships that had inspired her writing.

“It’s difficult for a mother to raise a child in this situation,” says Elayoubi. “They are speaking a new language, which you haven’t mastered, and they are becoming completely French citizens.

“Of course, I’m really proud of that, but at the same time you want to accompany them and assist them. That made me want to go back to school myself so I could help them.”

The publication of Prayer to the Moon changed Elayoubi's life. She wrote a second book and is now a writer and commentator.

Whether Zeroual, who returned to her previous job after filming finished, will have a similar change of career remains to be seen – but she’s adamant: “I want to act.”