Kaouther Ben Hania is heartbreaking Four Daughters (Les filles d’Olfa) draws you in with a question: Who is Olfa Hamrouni?
She gained international notoriety in 2016 when she criticized the Tunisian government for not preventing her daughters from joining the Islamic State in Libya. In interviews from those years, Hamrouni is a grieving mother. Her voice hurts with pain as she talks about the loss of her two eldest daughters, and she trembles with rage as she speaks of the government’s listless response.
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Captivating and devastating.
The docufiction of Ben Hania’s Olfa takes on a more relaxed attitude. She has traded her pink hijabs for a black scarf, woven tightly around her head. She is freer with her smile and more pointed with her asides. Grief still underpins her anecdotes, but so does a palpable willingness to share. She eagerly explains how she believes a movie about her life will help spread an important message and help her heal.
In many ways, Four Daughters is indeed a movie about Olfa’s life, but maybe not the way she expected. Inspired by Abbas Kiarostami’s close-up, it describes the process of filming a movie based on this matriarch and her four daughters. Ben Hania hires two actors – Nour Karoui and Ichraq Matar – to play Olfa’s missing daughters, Rahma and Ghofrane, as well as an actor (Hend Sabri) to play Olfa during moments deemed too traumatic for Olfa herself to reenact . Olfa’s remaining daughters, Eya and Tayssir, play themselves. Together, this crew stages memories as scenes, creating a fictionalized version of events Olfa and her family experienced to help loosen their grip on the present.
Ben Hania (Belle and the dogs, the man who sold his hide) uses this experiment to stretch Olfa’s story as well, making the delicate threads more visible. Four Daughters is a compelling tale of memory, motherhood and the inherited traumas of a patriarchal society. It deals with similar themes to those of Zarrar Kahn In flames, another Cannes participant exploring the relationships between mothers, daughters and oppressive systems. But while In flames applies horror conventions, Four Daughters stages a devastating chamber piece. It’s like Robert Greene’s documentary Processiona joint exercise in trauma recovery.
Set in a sparsely furnished apartment, the well-crafted film opens with a meeting between the players and Olfa’s family. The first bouts of awkwardness lead to the first of many touching moments. Seeing Karoui and Matar, Olfa and her two daughters start to cry. The actresses’ resemblance to their sisters is uncanny: comments about the similarities of smiles and mannerisms are shared while tears are slightly shed. This first encounter forces Olfa and her family to face the reality of this experiment: Catharsis will not come without its challenges.
Their story begins with Olfa and Sabri talking about Olfa’s upbringing. The descriptions of the cruelty and abuse she endured as a child are poignant. She tells of a childhood filled with fear, an adolescence organized around strength training and self-defense classes, and an adulthood where no one, not even a man, could take advantage of her. In one particularly poignant anecdote, Olfa discusses a family member who barged into her room on her wedding night and encouraged her husband to use as much force and aggression as possible to get Olfa to sleep with him.
The devastating psychological toll of this upbringing on Olfa becomes more apparent when Ben begins to interview Hania Eya and Tayssir, who describe their own childhood abuse. Their descriptions of their mother, who would insult and beat them to protect them from outside forces, complicates an earlier vision of Olfa. It also forces Olfa to struggle with sides of herself that she has suppressed.
It is during these moments that Olfa, Eya and Tayssir have to face themselves Four Daughters becomes extremely gripping, from an observational process documentary to an exciting confrontation between truth and performance, past and present. Ben Hania’s project alternates smoothly between re-enactments and preliminary conversations about these scenes. We see the actors struggle with the source material (and by extension the sources) and confront their own ethics and boundaries. There are some excellent moments where Sabri and Majd Mastoura, who is hired to play Olfa’s ex-husband and ex-boyfriend, discuss their process as performers – what they bring to a role and how they avoid being submerged in the heaviness of the roll. material.
All this helps Olfa and her family understand themselves from a new perspective. Conversations between Sabri and Olfa reveal how Olfa treated her daughters the same way her mother treated her – with an abusive overprotectiveness. Eya and Tayssir also gain confidence over the course of the film, allowing them to share emotions they have buried. They talk about the hurtful words their mother hurls at them in her most passionate moments and process the damaging relationships they had with their father and their mother’s most recent boyfriend.
The exercise builds a more three-dimensional portrait of this family, whose lives have been paralyzed by news programs. It helps them see each other more clearly, leading to some of the most poignant and emotionally disruptive scenes, and it makes room for them to understand how fear and the patriarchy shaped their behavior. There is also a tenderness to the whole enterprise. Rarely does Ben Hania’s film feel exploitative or manipulative. In fact, more than anything, Four Daughters is radical in its honesty and courage.