Year:  2023

Director:  Kaouther Ben Hania

Release:  29 February 2024

Distributor: Chrysaor

Running time: 107 minutes

Worth: $18.50
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Olfa Hamrouni, Hend Sabri, Eya Chikahoui, Tayssir Chikhaoui, Nour Karoui, Ichraq Matar, Majd Mastoura

… extraordinary and compelling …

In Four Daughters, the actual subjects, a mother and two daughters, reconstruct and narrate their story. But there were two other subjects, the eldest daughters, who weren’t available to be filmed. They are still serving time in a Libyan jail. The two teenagers, Ghofrane and Rahma, ran away to join the Islamic State in 2015 and were arrested for terrorist attacks.

Their mother, Olfa Hamrouni went public in 2016, criticising local authorities for allowing thousands of young Tunisians to become radicalised by militant groups abroad. Grief stricken at the loss of her daughters and fearful for the safety of the two youngest girls, Olfa raged on camera, defying the culture of shame and secrecy.

Director Kaouther Ben Hania worked on a straightforward documentary treatment of the story but put it to one side when it didn’t support the complex narrative to her satisfaction. Cut to 2023 and she had found her format, a bold hybrid of documentary, fiction and what could be classed as psychodrama.

Mother Olfa and daughters, Eya and Tayssir, are filmed as they recount their memories. In a bold choice, professional actors Ichraq Matar and Nour Karoui play the missing eldest daughters Ghofrane and Rahma respectively. There is also the extraordinary device of casting Egyptian movie star Hend Sabri for scenes that are too emotional for Olfa herself to carry out. There is also one male actor, Majd Mastoura, who portrays the various male partners and authority figures.

Ben Hania came straight out of the gate as a talented, bold director with Beauty and the Dogs in 2017, a film selected as the Tunisian entry for the Academy awards. Based on a true story, the main character is a young Tunisian woman raped by police officers and trying to get help in the face of intimidation and indifference.

Her ambitious but deeply flawed 2020 film The Man Who Sold his Skin received an Academy Award nomination for Best International Film. Four Daughters is the director’s latest Academy nomination, for Best Documentary Feature.

The big screen matches the archetypal themes in the Four Daughters story, and the cinematography (by Farouk Laaridh) is stunning, almost architectural in composition, with bold, clean framed shots that use windows, doors, walls to hold the environment in spare graphic lines that have the cast stand out to maximum effect. The location was an old hotel in the heart of Tunis.

The absolute strength of the film is not just the immersion in a powerfully emotional account, it is that Ben Hania pulls the camera back yet another step to include us in preparations for the scenes, as actors encourage the family to describe nuances and details of the emotional dramas they are about to play. In one spine-tingling moment, the family are introduced to the actors playing the missing daughters and Olfa’s alter ego.

There are many scenes where Sabri performs while Olfa stays in camera, offering context and directing action. Olfa is a naturally strong screen presence, defiant, emotional and, even in hijab, barely confirming to any notion of docile Arab Muslim femininity.

“I had turned myself into a man,” she explains, describing her own teenage life trying to defend her mother against male attackers.

Violence was the legacy of that upbringing, along with extreme sexual oppression. In the recounted and enacted memories, she wreaked her own trauma on her daughters in beatings and insults. This is where the film is elevated beyond documenting the family narrative. It opens up themes of feminism, religion, politics and inter-generational trauma, through the subjects’ extraordinary openness and powerful screen presence.

All the women are beautiful. Rather than distracting from a story of complex suffering, their riveting visual immediacy offers more in the debate about the place and fate of women, especially those subject to sexual repression and cultural tropes like women’s conflicted feelings about wearing hijabs and niqabs.

In the search for reasons behind the two eldest daughters’ radicalisation, we hear about Ghofrane’s goth-girl phase and Rahma’s obsession with moral purity, and the ongoing battle with the sometimes spectacularly aggressive Olfa. There is no mention of education, and when we see the reenactment of Olfa taking her girls, ages ranging from 8 to 15, into Libya to work as cleaners like herself, we have to include poverty and lack of opportunity in the mix of factors that drove Ghofrane and Rahma to seek what seems like the most desperate escape.

As a contrast to the visual immediacy and high definition of the main narrative, we see footage of the pair in prison, mute and with only their eyes visible in the hijab. Their silence prohibits definite answers for Olfa and their younger siblings, left heartbroken by their absence. The images are haunting, allowing space for the many themes raised by the film to turn over in the viewer’s mind.

This extraordinary and compelling hybrid isn’t ‘just another’ documentary. It’s the most real reality show you are likely to see.