Four Daughters

After the Tunisian Revolution of 2011, Olfa Hamrouni decided to have her own revolution, leaving her husband, moving to her sister’s house and indulging in an affair with a man.  But despite her own sexual awakening, Olfa was still strict with her girls and when her eldest two turned from dyed hair and Goth towards the hijab, she did not foresee the radicalization which would separate “Four Daughters.”

Laura's Review: B+

Kaouther Ben Hania (2021 International Oscar nominee “The Man Who Sold His Skin”) took an unusual approach for her 2023 Cannes winning documentary by hiring actors to portray Olfa’s two eldest daughters, Ghofrane and Rahma Chikhaoul (played by Ichraq Matar and Nour Karoul), both currently imprisoned in Libya, all the men in the family’s life (all played by Majd Mastoura) and Olfa herself (Egyptian-Tunisian actress Hend Sabri), the latter purportedly to step in when the going got too emotionally upsetting.  Only Olfa’s two younger daughters, Eya and Tayssir Chikhaoul, are not also represented by actors in this hybrid of past recreations and current confessions and confrontations.

Olfa is a complex and contradictory character, something we begin to learn as she relates her own history.  Like her own daughters, Olfa found herself in an all female household in a patriarchal society where men would often attempt to literally break down their door, and so she took on the guise of a boy at the age of thirteen to protect her mother.  On her wedding night, as her sister interrupted, goading her to give herself over and her husband to do the deed, Olfa instead beat him bloody, wiping his blood on the bed sheets she would brandish to those assembled outside.  After trying and failing to get her husband to take a more romantic approach to lovemaking, Olfa cut him off sexually except when she wanted money or another child.

And yet, when dealing with her own daughters, Olfa regarded any hint of their sexuality as a threat to be distinguished, often becoming verbally or physically abusive and it is here where Ben Hania’s actress steps in, ostensibly to learn Olfa’s motivation for her performance but in reality laying bare the truth (watch how Eya, a real live wire, reacts, vigorously nodding her head or wagging a finger).  Olfa reflects on the ‘curse’ which caused her to treat her daughters the same way her mother treated her.

We are also treated to Eya and Tayssir’s recollections, sometimes recreating situations with the actresses playing their elder sisters.  They talk about the strain of rejoicing in their mother’s new happiness with her lover while he, in turn, would abuse them.  While Eya is rebellious and outspoken, Tayssir is more malleable and realizes that but for a stint in a detention center, where the sisters were sent so as not to be kidnapped by their sisters, she would have followed in her beloved sister Rahma’s footsteps.  It was Ghofrane who first donned the hijab after her mother beat her brutally for her public behavior. Rahma, who had called her sister a bat for wearing it, went to the market one day in her Goth antichrist t-shirt and was stopped by men who threatened her with punishments of the grave.  Fearful, she followed suit.  ‘That’s how they control us,’ Eya tells us, ‘with God and religion.’

But Olfa saw this change in her daughters, turning towards her idea of purity, as a good thing, even adopting the hijab herself.  What she never saw coming is that Ghofrane would leave to marry an ISL terrorist while the family was working in Libya and that despite her attempts to intervene, even bringing her to Tunisian police, a disdainful Rahma would follow suit.

The filmmaker ends with a shot of the two sisters in a Libyan jail, only their eyes visible beneath their black shrouds, Ghofrane’s daughter never having known another environment.  In documenting the Islamic radicalization which splits apart a family, Ben Hania’s film becomes something of a therapy session but “Four Daughters” is also often a joyous occasion of recollections, laughter and love. 

Robin's Review: B+

Olfa is a single mother of four grown daughters in Tunisia. Her eldest, Rahma and Ghofrane, have been taken over by “the wolf” of ISIL. She still has her youngest, Eya and Tayssir, and, with director Kaouther Ben Hania, they tell their story of loss and hope for “Four Daughters.”

Writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania creates an unusual combination of fiction and fact in Olfa’s family story. One day, the mother faces the reality that her eldest daughters are gone from home and into the clutches of the terrorist group, Daesh, and their new husbands.

This is where director Ben Hania gives us a unique look into the issue of women in a Muslim society that has embraced Sharia law more and more, requiring the head-covering hijab and even more restrictive clothing. For Olfa, this means the loss of two daughters to the “cause” and her efforts to protect Eya and Tayssir from their older sisters’ fate.

To get the real flavor of choices made and consequences caused, the filmmaker brings in three actors to play Olfa, Ramha and Gofane. This completely changes the dynamic of the mother’s story and puts faces to the missing daughters.

The director’s choice in mixing actors and non-actors on telling Olfa’s family story is unusual but works quite well. Eya and Tayssir are strikingly attractive young woman and the actors paying the missing sisters, Nour Karoui as Rahma and Ichrak Matar as Ghofrane, could actually be the disappeared sisters.

The weaving of the stories around Olfa makes for a compelling film that is, indeed, a documentary but also something more.

Kino Lorber released "Four Daughters" in select theaters in October, 2023.  Click here for local play dates.