Four Daughters (Les filles d’Olfa)
(France/Tunisia/Germany/Saudi Arabia, 107 min.)
Dir. Kaouther Ben Hania
Programme: Official Competition (World Premiere)
Many hybrid docs play with notions of fictionalization – Kate Plays Christine and Casting Jean Benet come immediately to mind – but I’ve yet to see a film so thoroughly and effectively interrogates the retelling of a family story as Kaouther Ben Hania’s remarkable Four Daughters. The film draws upon Ben Hania’s body of work in both documentary (2016’s Zaineb Hates the Snow) and fiction (2020’s Oscar nominee for Best International Feature, The Man Who Sold His Skin).
At the centre of Four Daughters is a mother, Olfa Hamrouni. She’s a strong willed, independent woman whose story is told along with those of her youngest children, Eya and Tayssir, and two actresses: Nour Karoui as Rhama and Ichraq Matar as the eldest Ghofrane. Hend Sabri plays Olfa in the recreations when, as they say on screen, things become too difficult to bear.
The story of this family traces the last decades of Tunisian political upheaval, where the spark of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s resulted in massive demonstrations throughout the Middle East and North Africa, with varying effects emerging from the different nation states. Like other countries in the region, Tunisia saw its hardline yet secular government replaced by a far more Islamist-leaning political coalition. The ideology of the Islamic State that would soon proliferate throughout Iraq, Syria, and other areas would do the same in Tunisia and neighbouring countries.
These larger political forces have direct effect on the private lives of these five women. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Ben Hania’s film is how deftly she navigates these intersections. Perhaps even more laudable is how she never simplifies these personal tales into a victim/victimizer dialectic, for the film shows the intrinsic complexity of human behaviour, the stark truths of living within complex realities, and the glimmer of hope that circles of trauma can be overcome by new generations.
Four Daughters deftly navigates these moral ambiguities and does so while mixing genuine, tear-filled recollections with darkly comic moments. This is a harsh, moving story, but it’s also one with smiles. Olfa herself is a remarkable character, clearly a survivor in the many senses of the word, yet certainly not a perfect, idealized version of a caring mother. Her two youngest daughters, both under the age of 10 when the events that get teased through much of the running time took place, seem strong and confident when the cameras are on. At one point, they note that this isn’t the first time they’ve had to share their story. Moreover, when even a professional actor has to step away, Olfa’s there to tell her truth, just as she already did to the psychiatrists and others who helped her along the way.
Not knowing the circumstances of what happened to the two daughters who are made present by the actors does lend a sense of mystery to the film, yet the reveal at the end doesn’t seem like a salacious trick. Instead, by gradually revealing the facts, the film does justice to the complexity of just how such decisions are made. Literally going behind the headlines, Ben Hania’s film benefits from the open co-operation of those who were directly affected, as well as the distance from the original events that have given time for each participant to reflect on what transpired.
As a meta-film, one sees directly how each participant shapes and reshapes the performance of the retelling, whether the language is rough enough, or how a particular event is remembered from very different circumstances. The camera plays a direct role in reshaping behaviour, but how that’s made manifest here is quite remarkable, with the event of retelling itself having palpable effects on those involved. Some of the actors even directly interrogate those who lived the events, probing or even provoking differing emotions as they’re in the process of the retelling.
While not quite as bleak and overpowering, Ben Hania’s film evokes Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing in the best ways. This is no small compliment, and the way in which fact and fictionalization mix is employed differently and sympathetically by both films. At the very least, both films leave one appreciating not only the story of those on screen, but the very act of storytelling itself—a rich and powerful testament to the complexity of witnessing and the travails of making sense of the past.
Four Daughters is an emotionally deep, profoundly affecting work that both serves this deeply intimate story but also a more global concern about family dynamics, the vagaries of youth, generational trauma, and how society and fashion can reshape both adolescent and adult life in ways that are sometimes trivial and tragic in others. Ben Hania has achieved something truly remarkable in telling not only this story, but also in exploring the very mechanisms of non-fiction storytelling itself. While there may be an ongoing trend to explore the limits of documentary with hybrid assemblies, there are few as rich and rewarding so far as this remarkable work.