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Four Daughters
Les filles d'Olfa

Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania
Produced by Thanassis Karathanos, Martin Hampel, and Nadim Cheikhrouha
Written by Kaouther Ben Hania
With: Olfa Hamrouni, Eya Chikhaoui, Tayssir Chikhaoui, Nour Karoui, Ichrak Matar, Majd Mastoura, and Hind Sabri
Cinematography: Farouk Laâridh
Editing: Qutaiba Barhamji
Music: Amin Bouhafa
Runtime: 107 min
Release Date: 20 September 2023
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color: Color

Tunisian writer/director Kaouther Ben Hania (The Man Who Sold His Skin) delivers a remarkably innovative and inventive documentary about a family of Muslim women whose lives were torn apart by the disappearance of the two eldest sisters. Four Daughters, or Olfa's Daughters as it is known in non-English speaking countries, introduces us to Tunisian divorced mother of four, Olfa Hamrouni, and her two youngest daughters Eya and Tayssir. Though all these women seem to have made some kind of peace with the events this film will explore, they will forever be in mourning over the loss of the two older siblings, Ghofrane and Rahma. To tell the story of what happened, as well as explore the psychological and emotional states of all the participants as the events of their past unfolded, Ben Hania has invited three professional actresses to appear in the film with her subjects. In scenes of the past re-enacted for Ben Hania's cameras, two young actresses, Nour Karoui and Ichraq Matar, take on the roles of the absent Ghofrane and Rahma, while noted Tunisian-Egyptian star Hend Sabry portrays Olfa in scenes that are too emotionally difficult for the mother to play herself.

I've always maintained that if documentarians need to resort to the use of reenactments to tell their story, they are telling the wrong story or using the wrong medium. All movies, even the most vérité of cinéma vérité, are artistic representations of truths. Film inherently involves the manipulated interpretation of facts, footage, and ideas. But if a documentary requires the use of actors doing anything more than narration, giving voice to a piece of animation, letters, journals, speeches, and published writings, or performing in the most abstract manner—such as the faceless performers in Errol Morris’s stylized hypothetical crime scene re-enactments in The Thin Blue Line—then the film should be a docudrama. The exception is, of course, if the documentary is about actors putting on a show or making a film. Four Daughters falls far more into this later category than one might imagine, but the movie is not about the three actresses who come into the lives of this family to dramatize scenes from the family's past. The film is about the members of this family and the effect the process of staging past chapters of their lives has on them and the way they convey their story.

We almost never see a reenacted scene. Instead, we see the people who lived through events explaining to the actors and director the specifics of each dramatized occurrence, how to stage each beat, and what was happening for them at these specific points in their lives. It is almost like watching a documentary about people in group encounter therapy, though these women have already been through plenty of therapy and counseling and fully processed these life events. Perhaps all the healing work they've done is why they are able to relive their past both objectively with grace and humor while together in a group and subjectively when speaking one-on-one with Ben Hania. Actor Majd Mastoura portrays the various men in these women's lives, and his presence has its own intriguing effects on how the reconstructed scenes come together.

Still, the picture's most fascinating aspects are not found during the filming of recreated scenes but when the real women and the actresses are just sitting and getting to know each other. The movie could almost be called Women Talking if that title hadn't already been taken. Olfa and her daughters are not shy about discussing their views about anything. And the actresses are not passive sponges soaking up material they will later put into their performances; they are opinionated individuals themselves, asking probing questions and pushing back at many of Olfa's views and behaviors. Watching the subtle realizations Olfa undergoes over the course of this process is the film's most riviting and heartbreaking qualty.

It's notable that this uniquely Arab and secular Islamic picture came out the same year as the distinctly American fiction film May December, which is also about the effect on a family of an actress spending time with a woman she'll play in a dramatized telling of the family's life. In much of the Muslim world, actresses are regarded as little more than whores. Often, the profession is still viewed this way, those less overtly, by millions in the U.S. despite our celebrity-worshiping culture. And while the story told in Four Daughters feels specific to the region in which it takes place, nearly everything that unfolds in the movie feels like it could just as easily happen in radicalized America.

It takes a while before we learn the specifics of what happened to Ghofrane and Rahma, but we can deduce what came to pass from the movie's earliest moments and Olfa's opening statement that her daughters were "taken by the wolf." Tunisia has a nearly 100 percent Sunni Islamic population but is the least religious country in the Arab world, with well over a third of its residents identifying as non-religious. Like so many secular and religious countries these days, it has undergone its share of political revolutions, which are often entwined with growing religious fundamentalist movements. We can guess what happened to Ghofrane and Rahma, but our assumptions don't fully prepare us for the realities of how the story unfolds.

So many contemporary films blend fact and fiction, intermingling documentary elements with novelistic techniques in ways I find gimmicky and unformed. The resulting pictures often seem to be far more about the filmmaker's process than the subject they are exploring. Often, when watching such meta movies, I feel the story would be much better served by a simple, straightforward documentary, a fictional telling where more artistic liberties can be taken, or, worse, I feel like there really is no story at all. But Four Daughters is a powerful exception to this trend. The inherent artifice of the production conceit actually enhances the authenticity of the thematic and emotional issues the film explores. The process enables the viewer to quickly move past the surface presentations to glimpse the core of what each participant in the film is thinking and feeling at given moments. Ben Hania is able confront all kinds of resonant issues in ways no just-the-fact doc could touch or narrative entertainment could achieve with such raw, visceral, and honest power. The film explores the distinct bonds of sisterhood, how femininity is warped by patriarchal culture, the impact of intergenerational violence on how children are brought up, and how giving voice to one's younger self can provide catharsis around traumatic events. Like this year's excellent documentary, Subject, the film explores the emotional cost inherent in participating in a documentary that reopens and examines old wounds. Like the year's best fiction film, Anatomy of a Fall, it explores the power individuals have in terms of how we view members of our family who have made decisions or taken actions we'll never fully understand.

Ben Hania empowers these women to take control of their story while never relinquishing control of her film. She embraces the current movement to make documentaries more just and equitable to their subjects without reducing the results to soft, destructively respectful portates that lack a point of view, or worse, present one-sided works of self-aggrandizement or propaganda. Not that Four Daughters presents "all sides of the story." That is not what it is seeking to do. It is not a work of journalism, and the story that is told is limited to the perspective of those who are willing to tell that story. Within this structure, Four Daughters paints a vivid and complex portrait of humanity on an intimate scale with universal resonance.

Twitter Capsule:

Kaouther Ben Hania's innovative film about a Tunisian family dealing with radicalization is not a documentary that uses staged reenactments to tell the story but a documentary about the process of staging reenactments as the story.