January 18, 2024
There’s a bittersweet scene early in the vividly unorthodox documentary, Four Daughters. Family matriarch Olfa, one of the film’s main protagonists, gently laughs as she compares herself to Rose, Kate Winslet’s heroine from Titanic. Olfa erroneously points out that she will tell her story as professional actors will interpret the details, not unlike the framed narrative of James Cameron’s 1997 Oscar-winning blockbuster. It is a quietly humorous moment of naivety as the film’s director and screenwriter, Kaouther Ben Hania, corrects her.
“You, Eya, and Tayssir will act in the film,” Ben Hannia explains. “But there will also be an actor, who will play your character when the scenes are too upsetting.”
Thus is the unusual, yet compelling approach Ben Hania utilizes in weaving the true story of an otherwise tight-knit Tunisian family torn apart by religious fanaticism, and a fiery desire for anti-parental rebellion. Four Daughters is a captivating documentary that combines face-to-face interviews by the actual family members with reenactments by actors designed to simulate the family’s more intense situations based on reality. But what gives Four Daughters its creative edge is its avoidance of the classic trope of merely splitting the narrative between actors and their real-life counterparts. Rather, Ben Hania’s approach borders on the metaphysical: the actors portraying members of the family appear to be reenacting key situations from Olfa’s story, and then switch out of acting to interact with their reality counterparts in real time, in order to better grasp the motivations of their characters. Once the actors absorb the real individuals’ emotional and mental nuances, the documentary’s narrative snaps back into the reenactment, as if jumping from actual reality into its mirrored fictional reality. This brilliant maneuver in narrative helps give Four Daughters one of its most striking impacts next to its heartbreaking true family story.
On the surface, Olfa’s family looks like any other. She is a single mother, having been separated from her emotionally-abusive husband and forced to take care of her four daughters - Rahma and Ghofrane being the eldest, and Eya and Tayssir being the youngest. The girls are inseparable; together, they do things synonymous with young people of their age and gender: playing games, coping with the physical changes of their bodies, understanding boys, etc.
But what separates them from any other working-class family on the planet is their religious faith and turbulent geo-political surroundings. Olfa and her daughters lived in Tunisia, a country known for its strict conservative Islamic state and ties to Daesh jihadist groups. The daughters were raised by a wayward father who mistreated them and their mother; he was especially stern towards older daughter Ghofrane, berating her with insulting names as “whore” if she and her sisters did not reflect their culture’s ultraconservative male-dominant religious views. Their father would eventually abandon them. As time wore on, Olfa did her best to raise her children properly, even as the rough waters of their world would continue to rock the boat of their lives.
Unfortunately, their culture’s extremist strife does eventually catch up with the family, in the harshest ways possible. Rahma and Ghofrane become influenced by the country’s Islamist state (or, as their mother puts it, “They were devoured by the wolf.”). The girls resort to wearing the traditional garments of hijab and niqab and become insistent on following Allah’s word to the letter. They even attempt to force their iron will on their mother and youngest sisters. In the meantime, Olfa struggles to save her oldest two daughters from the Daesh’s influence, but are met in vain when both become fully indoctrinated and abandon their family completely. Instead, she places all of her efforts to spare her youngest two daughters, Eya and Tayssir, from falling under the same jihadist spell.
The agony of losing her oldest children is clear from the very real tears in the eyes of Olfa and her remaining daughters; even the actors can’t help but get emotional. To assuage the gaping hole left behind by both elder daughters, director Karouther Ben Hannia employs her brilliant technique of casting actresses to substitute for Rahma and Ghofrane (played by Nour Karoui and Ichrak Matar, respectively). Both Karoui and Matar bear uncanny resemblances to their real counterparts, as does Hind Sabri, the actress portraying Olfa during the more intense dramatic scenes. Meanwhile, Eya and Tayssir play as themselves. In several scenes, both girls struggle to keep their emotions in check as they reminisce about Rahma and Ghofrane. The remaining sisters and their mother provide helpful insight to Karoui, Matar, and Sabri. The end result is a fascinating chemistry between the real family members and the actors playing convincing strong facsimiles of what was once their loved ones.
Four Daughters was one of the many pictures screened at the 2023 Lake Placid Film Festival. It was also recently officially submitted for the 2024 Academy Awards. We at Adirondack Film bid director Karouther Ben Hannia, and the cast and crew of Four Daughters good luck on the road to Oscar gold.
The film is currently available for streaming on YouTube, AppleTV, Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, and Google Play Movies.
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October 24, 2023