‘Four Daughters’ Breaks the Mold To Give an Honest Picture of a Mother’s Loss

The daring documentary about a Tunisian family’s grief after two daughters joined the Islamic State group has been rewarded with an Oscar nomination

‘Four Daughters’ Breaks the Mold To Give an Honest Picture of a Mother’s Loss
A still shot from the film “Four Daughters.” (IMDB)

Kaouther Ben Hania’s newest film, “Four Daughters,” rendered in Arabic as “Daughters of Olfa,” is one of the strangest yet most affecting documentaries made in recent years. The film traces the story of Olfa Hamrouni, a Tunisian mother of four daughters whose two eldest became radicalized, ran away from home and joined the Islamic State group in 2016. That year, the story blew up across Tunisian and even Western media, as outlets shoved microphones and cameras in Hamrouni’s face to ask her what happened and criticized her for being a poor mother. Years later, few remember the tragedy of the Hamrouni family.

Or few did, until Ben Hania’s critically lauded film — which made a splash last year at Cannes, and was just nominated for an Oscar for best documentary feature film — brought the story of the Hamrouni family back into the limelight. Since then, there has been much buzz among Western media and critics about the film and how the media treated the Hamrounis. Much of this attention has focused on the fact that “Four Daughters” is an unconventional documentary: The film revolves around Ben Hania’s decision to have the Hamrounis reenact their story, including Olfa’s marriage through her divorce, her early halcyon days with her daughters, the tragedy of losing her two eldest to a terror group and the present day. She brings in two actors to play the eldest two daughters, who act alongside the real-life younger two sisters and Olfa herself. But when a scene becomes too emotionally charged for Olfa, the director also uses an esteemed actor, Hend Sabri, to stand in for Olfa and play her role momentarily. It’s unorthodox, especially in light of the fact that “Four Daughters” is billed as a documentary. Ben Hania’s innovations highlight the power of the documentary genre and its potential to re-traumatize the Hamrouni family.

As “Four Daughters” made its rounds of the film festival circuit last year, many critics commented on the film’s thematic concerns with generational and inherited trauma, but less has been said about its wider perspective on the retelling of traumatic experiences. Olfa’s story is tragic, and there are plenty of on-screen tears between mother and daughters. To retell is to relive, to look at old wounds and threaten to reopen them. Most people who have really lived have a story that, if recollected and retold, can reveal old ruptures and arouse ghosts that should lie sleeping. If memory, which makes us human, is so potentially fraught, it is because sometimes its edges are broken glass. This aspect of memory comes to the fore through the film’s premise. To play Olfa and her daughters as authentically as possible, the actors have to understand every member of the family: their beliefs, their motivations and their fears. Consequently, most of the documentary is not actually the reenactment of Olfa’s life but rather behind-the-scenes conversations between the family and actors as they try to give authentic performances.

In “Four Daughters,” we are not treated to the re-creation of Olfa’s story so much as we are witness to conversations between Olfa’s family and the actors in service of their portrayals. It is a retelling, yes, but it is still more an opening-up, a series of moments of utmost vulnerability between the actors and the family, excavated and played in sequence. It is rare to see a story as well told as this. All the same, it’s hard not to squirm a little. In one of the conversations between the family and the actors, one of the younger daughters recalls talking to her mother’s ex-boyfriend as he lay drugged out with a needle in his arm. The actor who plays the ex-boyfriend becomes so uncomfortable that, in front of the camera, he asks to leave to talk to Ben Hania, hoping she might change her mind on including this scene in the film. Should we be in the same room, privy to this cinematic undressing of a family and its tragedy? It’s a question that we rarely ask ourselves.

Perhaps there is a social aversion to the truth at work or an unease about hearing Arab women speak so clearly about their lived experiences. Ben Hania’s depiction of the Hamrouni family is nothing if not expansive and careful. In an interview at the BFI London Film Festival, the independent critic E. Nina Rothe asked Ben Hania if her film had received any criticism for being exploitative, for being so brazen in its depiction of the Hamrouni tragedy and the family’s grief. Ben Hania answered that she has a long-standing relationship with the family members and her film is the first time they have been able to speak about the truth of the events, even though Olfa has long been given a platform by Tunisian and Western media — the same media that turned Olfa into a “monster,” in Ben Hania’s words. Far from being exploitative, in her view, “Four Daughters” represents perhaps the first chance for the Hamrouni family to relate the story from start to finish and to find some sense of peace.

Rarely are Arab women, in this case Tunisian women, afforded the opportunity to speak out about misogyny and not face repercussions. In the early days of the Arab Spring, across the Middle East, both women and men took to the streets to demand democracy and an end to authoritarianism. For a while, the region held on to a tenuous hope for change, but as the wheels of revolution turned, new regimes emerged and radicalization swept the region, in turn threatening gains made by women’s rights movements. In the case of Yemen, for instance, women’s rights have been in a precarious state since the Houthi takeover. In an interview with Time, Tawakkol Karman, a Yemeni feminist and activist, said, “[B]ecause of the counter-revolution … women … in general, became victims.” The fight for women’s rights is not over.

In Tunisia, the women’s rights movement has won hard-fought battles but still has to contend with pressing issues. In post-Arab Spring Tunisia, activists successfully mobilized, both via the political process and outside of it, to protect and advance women’s rights. In 2017, the Tunisian Parliament adopted Law 2017-58 on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, a sweeping piece of reform that sought to advance women’s rights. Law 58 entitles women to apply for state-provided protection measures — for medical and psychological help and for housing services — without the need to file formal complaints. According to Human Rights Watch, it is one of the strongest laws against domestic violence across the Middle East and North Africa. Yet in 2022, Human Rights Watch found that Tunisian authorities’ efforts to stop domestic violence had been unequal, ineffective and uneven. Many women are unaware of the protections provided by Law 58, and many measures under the law are rarely applied fairly. Those who speak out often find themselves at risk of greater violence: Police often force victims to retract complaints, and many victims face retaliation from the state and intimate partners. Ben Hania has frequently explored gender politics in her filmography, and “Four Daughters” is no exception, as it carves out a space for its subjects to speak about domestic violence, assault and sexuality with no interruption or fear of reprisal.

The documentary genre has long had to contend with its complicity in colonialism and Orientalism. Knowledge production, never a neutral process, traces not only the subject but also the interests of those producing it. To document people’s pain threatens to re-traumatize them with little promise of anything in return. This has been increasingly recognized within journalism, and in response there has been a push for trauma-informed journalism, with the goal of protecting interviewees and subjects from further harm. This nascent discourse has begun to take root in documentary filmmaking as well. As documentarian Natalie Bullock Brown has written for PBS, “At the end of the day, accountable storytelling is really about ‘how we treat each other.””

There is a reason, then, that although Olfa Hamrouni has spoken on the news for years, she has never felt she could properly narrate her life and story until now. Yes, to put a life under a microscope is to open a wound. But through Ben Hania’s relationship with the family, she affords the Hamrounis the room and safe space to elucidate their entire story. An open wound, properly stitched, can finally heal.

As the premise of “Four Daughters” forces us to engage with the re-traumatization of the documentary subject, at the same time it provides a vehicle to explore larger questions. “Four Daughters” represents the latest entry in a filmography marked by the thematic concern of the commidification and fetishization of the Arab body. In 2020’s “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” Ben Hania explores the fictional story of a man who agrees to a tattoo on his back by a famous artist in exchange for a Schengen visa. In her 2015 film “Beauty and the Dogs” (inspired by true events), Ben Hania depicts a woman who goes to the Tunisian police to report her sexual assault and rape, only to encounter further dehumanization and violence. The MENA body has long been a subject of authoritarian violence and Orientalist subjugation, and “Four Daughters” represents the latest step in this thematic exploration.

Much of the film focuses on sexuality as it relates to Olfa and her daughters, in order to explore expectations of women and motherhood in a region that is caught between the forces of tradition and globalization. Ben Hania captures these polarizing forces of Westernization and conservative values by framing Olfa again and again between two windows: one navy blue and one blood red. This family lives on a knife-edge, in a delicate and constantly threatened balance of generational differences. Within Olfa too, a war rages. She both rejects and enforces patriarchal norms. In one of the film’s most surprising stories, Olfa relates the story of her wedding night. As people gathered outside her window, waiting to see the bloodied wedding sheet as proof of the consummation, she fought off her husband’s advances, beating his face to rub his blood on the sheet. She presented this same sheet outside her window as “proof.” How can we not feel some awe at this strength?

Yet Olfa came to enforce harsh ideals of what a woman should be on her daughters. In a conversation with them and Hend Sabri, she tells them that their bodies belong to their future husbands. She relates how she went through her daughter’s phone and found a picture of her daughter’s elbow, which she mistook for a lewd photo. She decided to lock her daughter out in the rain as punishment. When her eldest daughter, Ghofrane, went through a phase of fascination with goth subculture, Olfa beat her so badly that she thought she might have killed her. Yet when her eldest daughters started to become more radical, Olfa could do little to stop their transition. “Four Daughters” rarely flinches in the face of these stories, and when it does, Hend Sabri, in her own capacity, argues with Olfa as to why she did these things. Why would she beat her daughter that badly? How can her daughters’ bodies belong to men they have never met? The film does not redeem these actions, but Ben Hania extends a powerful grace that allows Olfa to explain her life in all its thorniness, with Hend Sabri acting as our mouthpiece. Unlike the media that platformed Olfa and then turned to villainize her, “Four Daughters” maintains an even hand and depicts this family in all its complexity.

Patriarchy is omnipresent, and Ben Hania finds ways to comment on its effects on everyday life. Every woman in the Hamrouni family is played by a different actor, with Ben Hania taking meticulous care to ensure that each actor resembles the corresponding woman in the family. All the men, however, namely Olfa’s ex-husband and ex-boyfriend, are played by the same man, and it’s not clear that anything in his appearance or personality resembles them. The patriarchy might manifest itself in different incarnations, yet it always presents the same face.

“Four Daughters” often turns inward as Olfa and her daughters talk about their lives and, most powerfully, their regrets. Framed by those same blood-and-ocean windows, in one of her last scenes Olfa talks about how cats love their kittens so much they might eat them. It is clear she is talking about herself and the daughters she lost, how she regrets being both so overprotective and yet not protective enough. Her introspection weighs heavy long after the film’s end, and I found this its most sobering and powerful aspect.

In our attempts to protect our children, or even more generally those we love, our love can be all-consuming. In 2013, researchers coined the phrase “cute aggression” — the tendency to be aggressive (not truly, only in appearance) when confronted with something small, something cute. Perhaps this hints at something deeper in our psyche, some baser tendency that, when unleashed, allows us to harm and consume even the most precious of the things we love and hold dear. Love is tainted by the human desire to control, and even the deepest of loves is not free from its social and political background. How we love others and teach others to love has a context. If Olfa tells her daughters that she will beat them for talking about their vaginas in front of the camera, this is how she has been socialized to raise her daughters and love them.

The cinematic tapestry of the Hamrouni family depicts the darkest and brightest moments of the family’s life. There is no ulterior motive in Ben Hania’s project. If Olfa’s treatment of her daughters upsets us, we come to understand all the same why she raised her daughters the way she did. We feel a sense of sympathy for her and her enduring loss. How does one ever recover from the loss of two daughters, not by death but by will? “Four Daughters” has the supreme mark for a film of having remained turning in my mind long after the credits.

This stands as Ben Hania’s achievement with “Four Daughters,” and is a large part of why it won critical acclaim at so many of last year’s film festivals. Had Ben Hania played the documentary straight by just interviewing the family, or had she just done a wholesale reenactment, “Four Daughters” would have likely been regarded as an interesting entry in the annals of Tunisian cinema and nominated for some awards, and that would have been the end of it. Instead, “Four Daughters” represents an innovation in the documentary genre at large through its commitment to subjectivity.

Cinema and culture are increasingly turning to examine subjectivity, and how this is truth in and of itself. This year’s festival darling, Justine Triet’s “Anatomy of a Fall,” which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, explores similar themes through the story of a woman who is put on trial for the death of her husband. Did he commit suicide, was he killed or did he simply fall? The past, in all its complexity, resists our desire to distill it into one-word answers, but when we settle on the truth (whatever it may be), therein lies peace.

To what extent is Olfa at fault for her daughters leaving? Ben Hania, who comments every so often behind the camera, remains silent on this, handing us Olfa and her daughters’ tears, grief and uneasy peace.

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