The arresting, genre-twisting Tunisian documentary centers the voices of a mother and her two daughters who didn’t leave.
Anyone who has seen hundreds of documentaries in their life sincerely appreciates when a filmmaker brings something groundbreaking to the genre. With Four Daughters, a Tunisian film that soared at Cannes earlier this year, director Kaouther Ben Hania does just that. She places reenactors in conversation with the subjects, framing the story in a new light and allowing a way for the women to reclaim their voice.
Mother Olfa and her two youngest girls, Eya and Tayssir, appear as themselves. Actress Hend Sabri plays Olfa in scenes that may be too traumatic for the Tunisian woman to revisit. The roles of Olfa’s two eldest daughters, Rahma and Ghofrane, are taken on by actresses Nour Karoui and Ichraq Matar. After an introductory section setting up the style of storytelling that will follow, we quickly begin learning about Olfa and her disappeared daughters.
Olfa’s narration unfolds through Sabri’s rehearsal, as the performer attempts to capture the woman’s accent and tone. Their voices intertwine in an attention-grabbing manner. Eya tells her mother that this cinematic experiment is “going to reopen the wounds.” The contrasts involved in the storytelling — the lighter behind-the-scenes moments, the frank on-camera admissions interrupting reenactments, the trading out between Olfa and Sabri of who acts as mother figure — pull the viewer in, engaging the audience while addressing uncomfortable family truths about abuse (verbal, physical and sexual) and female agency.
During a moment of reenactment, Eya recites verbal abuse she’s received from her mother — laughing as she does, although one assumes it’s a trauma response – and confesses, “This film lets me speak out.” Olfa opens up through interviews about not wanting daughters (“I hate girls”) and the lack of control she began to feel as her girls grew older. There’s a certain dichotomy in the shame she expects her children to feel about their bodies and her own discomfort with wearing the hijab that her elder daughters later encouraged. But Olfa and her four children are shown in Four Daughters as the complicated people that they are, with all their faults and foibles.
Four Daughters is one of the most stunning documentaries I’ve seen in years. The layers to the structure and form of the film make for an intense viewing experience. Blurring and weaving voices, the audio mix adds yet another level. The thought and contemplation given to the film’s composition as a whole is obvious. Kaouther Ben Hania’s revelatory film delves into a legacy of abuse with an eye to the generations of younger women who will break free from it.
Four Daughters plays Sunday, Nov. 12, at Austin Film Society.