Four Daughters (2023) (Les Filles d’Olfa)

Four Daughters is a powerful and emotionally compelling mixture of documentary and drama directed by Kaouther Ben Hania that examines the roots of fundamentalism and how women pass on self-imposed repression through the generations.

Woman Hands On To Woman

by Alexa Dalby

Four Daughters

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

Olfa Hamrouni became a media figure in Tunisia, vocally criticising the authorities for their lack of action, when her two radicalised eldest daughters disappeared from her home without explanation. It was learnt that they had joined Daesh in Libya, presumably aiming for ISIS in Syria.

The film recreates the lives of the women: the pain of the mother and her two grieving daughters at the unexplained abandonment when they were very young of their two elder sisters, whom they still love and miss.

The two youngest daughters, now grown into beautiful young women, are still living with single parent Olfa: the two missing eldest girls are replaced by actors in the film. Olfa plays herself, but in some scenes is replaced in her reenactment by veteran Egyptian-Tunisian actress Hind Sabri when it is “too painful” for her to continue. Sabri asks penetrating, perceptive questions of Olfa. In some scenes where Olfa is played by Sabri, we see her in the background watching and commenting on context and whether the actors have got it right.

The film opens with a voiceover from director Ben Hania (The Man Who Sold His Skin), whose voiceover occurs off and on throughout, as she introduces the actors to the remaining members of the family. As the film progresses, the women’s relationship grows closer, they interact and blend more like a family, with the younger girls even taking part in the actors’ warm-up exercises.

The end result is brutally revealing about women’s lives. Olfa is frank about her unhappy marriage and horrendous wedding night, her divorce and then her infatuation with her lying lover. The actor Majd Mastoura plays all the unsatisfactory males. Olfa debates whether things were better before and after the “Revolution” in 2012, when longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was still in power.

Olfa comes across as a violent, controlling (and too-often-absent) mother but as she gradually tells us more about herself, we come to understand the reasons why. She is unaware she has internalised the misogyny of the patriarchy and society in so many ways: she believed her strictness was needed to pass on a distrust of female sexuality to her daughters.

But despite the details of the troubled upbringing that we learn about, the two youngest (Eya and Tayssir) are modern young girls from a different generation to their mother, society has changed, they not afraid to be lively, outspoken and sexual, and wear what they please (within limits). They tell their truths about hardship, beatings and childhood abuse to the director’s camera.

But sadly the two eldest girls could only find their freedom in radicalism and extremism. Ghofrane (played by Ichraq Matar) rebelled first, shockingly dressing as a Goth, then by finding religion as a jihadist and wearing a voluminous black niqab: she apparently influenced the next sister Rahma (Nour Karoui) to do the same. The younger girls tried wearing a niqab but did not want to. Their mother said she was forced to by the eldest, but did not like it either.

The third act of the film uses TV footage to tell the story of what happened to Ghofrane and Rahma after they left home: there is another daughter to be indocrinated.

Four Daughters premiered in Competition at Cannes, the first Tunisian film for over 50 years and the first time ever for a Tunisian woman, where it won four prizes. It is Tunisia’s shortlisted entry for the International Oscars. It is released on 1 March 2024 in the UK.

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