Rafa Sales Ross


Four Daughters – first-look review

The latest documentary from Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania centers a quartet of young women whose lived are changed forever when two of them join ISIS.

Documentaries are just as much about the careful withholding and staggering of information as they are about sharing said information itself. This dichotomy stands as a reason to make one reticent to share in a first paragraph the life-shattering circumstances that turned the women of the Hamrouni family into the subject of the newest documentary by Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, Four Daughters.

The inciting episode of Ben Hania’s follow-up to Oscar-nominated The Man Who Sold His Skin is at first blamed on a wolf. Olfa Haroumi, the mother of the titular daughters, describes the disappearance of her two eldest as a modern Red Riding Hood, her loving nest violently invaded and destroyed by a preying figure. As Four Daughters unravels, the wolf shapeshifts, guilt ping-ponged around those involved in a slyly crafted examination of perspective.

Ben Hania places her latest in the murky patch between fact and fiction, with Olfa and her two youngest joined by actors to reenact key moments of their family’s story. The only exception is the mother, played by both Olfa herself and famed Egyptian actress Hend Sabri. This choice, justified within the film as a means to protect the mother from emotionally-charged sequences, proves a fruitful starting point for investigating the way in which Four Daughters enquires at how much truth can change when prodded and bent to feed into a well-established narrative.

Olfa is a charming figure. And, most importantly, a figure concerned with and aware of the benefits of charming others. The mother’s understanding of her ability to persuade those around her is never more pronounced than when in conversation with Eya and Tassir, her two youngest girls. This makes for Ben Hania’s choice to remove Olfa from some of the film’s most sensitive reenactments an assured feat, with Sabri stepping in to allow the girls the space to express their grief and dissect the thornier aspects of a childhood Olfa is steadfast in framing through rose-tinted glasses.

Eya and Tassir’s willingness to tell their story — and the openness and clarity with which they do — at once muddles and relieves the ethical questionings surrounding Four Daughters. As we have now reached paragraph five, it feels a fitting time to bid farewell to reticence and reveal the tragedy that struck the female clan: in 2012, then teens Rhama and Ghofrane became interested in a group spreading religious propaganda in their impoverished neighbourhood. It didn’t take long for the girls, raised Muslims but not hijab-wearing, to not only adopt the full burqa but convince their sisters to do the same. Months later, the duo left Tunisia to join ISIS in Lybia.

There are moments in Four Daughters that veer dangerously close to voyeurism. The remaining girls are made to confront the trauma that has forever changed the course of their lives in not only painful detail but also in haunting physical form, with Ben Hania casting two Rahma and Ghofrane lookalikes to stand as ghostly reminders of all the family lost. Alas, by gambling with the flimsy dice of morality, the director crafts a film that successfully bypasses the traps of the gratuitous to find its way towards an uncomfortable but ultimately rewarding catharsis.

Published 22 May 2023

Tags: Kaouther Ben Hania

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