‘Four Daughters’ Review: A Heartbreaking, Formally Fresh Exploration of Motherhood and Inherited Trauma in Tunisia
Kaouther Ben Hania’s heartbreaking Four Daughters (Les filles d’Olfa) pulls you in with a question: Who is Olfa Hamrouni?
She rose to international fame 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 bereaved mother. Her voice aches with pain as she recounts the loss of her two eldest daughters, and it shakes with anger when she speaks of the government’s listless response.
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The Olfa of Ben Hania’s docu-fiction strikes a more relaxed pose. She has traded her pink hijabs for a black scarf, tightly woven around her head. She’s freer with her laughs and more pointed with her asides. Grief still undergirds 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 perhaps not in the way she expected. Inspired by Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, it chronicles 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 re-enact. 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 have lived to help loosen their grip on the present.
Ben Hania (Beauty and the Dogs, The Man Who Sold His Skin) uses this experiment to also stretch Olfa’s story, making its delicate threads more visible. Four Daughters is an enthralling narrative about memory, motherhood and the inherited traumas of a patriarchal society. It deals with similar themes to Zarrar Kahn’s In Flames, another Cannes entrant that explores the relationships between mothers, daughters and oppressive systems. But whereas In Flames applies horror conventions, Four Daughters stages a devastating chamber piece. It resembles Robert Greene’s documentary Procession, a collaborative exercise in trauma recovery.
The well-wrought film takes place in a sparsely decorated apartment and opens with an encounter between the performers and Olfa’s family. The initial bouts of awkwardness lead into the first of many moving moments. Upon seeing Karoui and Matar, Olfa and her two daughters start to cry. The actresses’ likeness to their sisters is uncanny: Comments on the similarities of smiles and mannerisms are shared as tears are lightly shed. This first meeting forces Olfa and her family to confront 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 faced as a child are harrowing. She talks about a childhood filled with fear, an adolescence organized around weight training and self-defense classes and an adulthood where no one, not even a man, could take advantage of her. In one particularly harrowing anecdote, Olfa discusses a family member bursting into her room on her wedding night and encouraging her husband to apply as much force and aggression as possible to get Olfa to sleep with him.
The devastating psychological toll of this upbringing on Olfa becomes clearer when Ben Hania starts interviewing Eya and Tayssir, who describe their own childhood beatings. Their descriptions of their mother, who would insult them and beat them all in the name of protecting them from external forces, complicate an earlier vision of Olfa. It also forces Olfa to grapple with sides of herself she has suppressed.
It’s during these moments, where Olfa, Eya and Tayssir must face themselves, that Four Daughters becomes utterly transfixing, moving from an observational process documentary to an exhilarating confrontation between truth and performance, past and present. Ben Hania’s project shifts fluidly between reenactments and preparatory conversations about these scenes. We see the actors wrestle with the source material (and, by extension, the sources) and confront their own ethics and boundaries. There are some excellent moments when 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 prevent themselves from becoming subsumed by the heaviness of the material.
All of this, in turn, helps Olfa and her family understand themselves from a new perspective. Conversations between Sabri and Olfa clarify 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, which allows them to share emotions they’ve buried. They talk about the hurtful words their mother hurls at them in her most impassioned moments and process the harmful 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 were flattened by news programs. It helps them see each other more clearly, which leads to some of the most gripping and emotionally wrenching scenes, and it clears space for them to understand how fear and the patriarchy shaped their behaviors. There’s a tenderness to the whole enterprise, too. Rarely does Ben Hania’s film feel exploitative or manipulative. In fact, more than anything, Four Daughters is radical in its honesty and courage.
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