Film

Behind Oscar-tipped doc Four Daughters: A story of radicalisation, family and loss

Kaouther Ben Hania's new film finds the shared humanity behind the impact of extremism

Sisters Tayssir and Eya, two of the subjects of the new film Four Daughters

Sisters Tayssir and Eya. Image: © Tanit Films / Cinétéléfilms / Twenty Twenty Vision

From the opening of Four Daughters, you can feel something is missing. The documentary explores the private world of an all-female Tunisian family, made up of mother Olfa Hamrouni and two daughters Tayssir and Eya, probing their loss of two older sisters, Ghofrane and Rahma. Where did they go so suddenly? What needs to be uncovered to understand their departure?

Despite the warmth and charm of the documentary subjects (Olfa laughs at the beginning that she sees herself as the older storytelling Rose in Titanic), there’s an underlying sense of discomfort surrounding the family’s loss. “It’s a movie about those who stay and those who feel the absence,” explains Kaouther Ben Hania.

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Four Daughters is the second Oscar-nominated film for the Tunisian director, making her the first Arab woman to score two nominations at the Academy Awards. But her satire on the entrenched colonialism of the art world, The Man Who Sold His Skin, was a relatively conventional drama compared to Four Daughters, which uses actors to represent Ghofrane, Rahma and a younger Olfa in recreated scenes and discussions with those who were left behind. 

In 2016, Ben Hania learned of an all-female Tunisian family who had spoken out about their two older daughters becoming radicalised into joining Islamic State. “At the beginning the idea was to do a more conventional documentary, but little by little I understood that this wasn’t enough,” she explains to The Big Issue. After her 2021 nomination, she returned to Olfa, realising that “if I want to understand the origin of this tragedy, I have to dig deep in this family’s past. And since the past is not available any more to be filmed, maybe I need to use a documentary cliche – re-enactments – in a way that gives me the possibility not only to bring the past to the present, but also to analyse it.”

All six players pick up their roles and drop them with ease, resulting in a film that’s both captivating and tricky to pin down. Olfa is a commanding central presence, but her own testimony complicates the strict social codes she imposes on her daughters. Tayssir and Eya are confident, generous subjects, falling into a rhythm with the two actors playing their sisters (Ichrak Matar and Nour Karoui), which allows them to think critically in real time about the conditions – both inside and outside the home – that spurred their sisters’ radicalisation.

“I don’t like re-enactments,” clarifies Ben Hania. “For me it’s such a huge cliche. So I wanted to use it in a more authentic way. When we see actors, we know that they are acting, so for me it was important that when they start acting, they can step out of the scene and think about what they are doing.”

This is why there’s something disarming about the intimacy in Four Daughters; the warm, open conversations that explore the sisters’ expatriation. “When human beings think about our memories, we think about them as a representation [that’s] not very faithful to what exactly happened. We add emotion, affection, we edit our memories, we tell the story after,” says Ben Hania. “It’s a movie about how those memories affected this family.”

Ben Hania cast actors for their real-life personalities to aid the process, reduced her crew to a minimum and insisted on the majority being female. There’s a charged energy knowing how close everyone is in proximity to each other. “We see the people in front of the camera, but we can feel that behind the camera all of us were together in this crazy and wonderful adventure.”

In the west, stories of Islamic radicalisation are always viewed from an antagonistic perspective that reduces the agency and voice of those most acutely affected. Even though she came to Olfa’s story as a Tunisian woman, Ben Hania makes it clear the film belongs to the family, and they were all equal in the documentary process. “Documentaries have this magical thing where I am the first audience of my movie. I’m surprised all the time, I have a genuine, authentic reaction. So there’s something about being in control as a filmmaker, but losing the movie, finding it again, which is very interesting.”

It has been estimated that some 700 Tunisian women have joined extremist groups across the Middle East. By focusing on a family, Four Daughters makes those statistics and reports all the more human. “What was interesting to me wasn’t the headline news, because for me, it’s the visible tip of the iceberg. That’s why I reveal it at the end of the movie. What is important is what happened before and how we see it.”

The Oscars is a huge platform for the film, but also one that could flatten the highly specific cultural perspective of the story. “The movie is very Tunisian, very local,” says Ben Hania. But she’s delighted at the film’s global reach. “The shared humanity behind the geographical context is always important for me. Those themes resonate everywhere.”

Four Daughters is out in cinemas on 1 March. Rory Doherty is a freelance screenwriter.

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