A Tunisian Mother Loses Her Daughters To Wolves

May 26, 2023

CANNES: Docudramas are inherently difficult to master. You’re attempting to meld real-life footage or people with actors and, often, fictionalized accounts that may substantially differ from the truth. In the case of “Four Daughters,” director and screenwriter Kaouther Ben Hania has succeeded in mastering the genre but, notably, by the slimmest of margins. It helps that her subject and source material are compelling enough to overcome the movie’s flaws.
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The follow-up to Ben Hania’s Oscar-nominated 2020 narrative film, “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” her latest endeavor begins with Olfa Hamrouni and her two twentysomething daughters, Eya Chikahoui and Tayssir Chikhaoui, waiting in a production office or maybe a makeup studio or, possibly, just a room (it’s never really clarified) somewhere in Tunis, Tunisia. They eagerly await the arrival of the film’s hired actors as Olfa, Eya, and Tayssir are actually playing themselves, although at first you naturally question whether that’s true or not (an underlying tension that is welcome for the first third of the picture). We are soon introduced to Nour Karoui, who is portraying Olfa’s daughter Rahma Chikhaoui, and Ichraq Matar, who plays Olfa’s fourth child, Ghofrane Chikhaoui. It’s an emotional moment for Olfa, who has lost her daughters to unnamed “wolves,” and is fascinated by how much the two women resemble her missing children. What exactly happened to Rahma and Ghofrane is a snapshot of modern Tunisia as it attempts to adapt to Western culture and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in the North African nation.
What’s genuinely unique about “Four Daughters” is how un-cinematic it is even for a docudrama. Rahma and Ghofrane’s stand-ins may act out a “scene” with Olfa and their sisters, but most of the time the five women are sitting on a couch or discussing Rahma and Ghofrane’s story on the roof of a building they never appear to leave. And, almost always, Olfa and her daughters are telling that story directly to the camera (with Ben Hania seemingly behind it). Eventually, news footage gets thrown into the mix and it hits you that this truly is the real Olfa and not some meta-narrative exercise. And that makes what happened to Rahma and Ghofrane somehow even more horrifying.
If you’re hoping to find out the sisters’ story beforehand, you won’t learn that here. Feel free to google it or read a review that casually spoils their fate. Where Ben Hania succeeds is in making their disappearance tangibly real. She allows Olfa, Eya, and Tayssir to paint a portrait of what happened to their family in such a visceral manner that no traditional dramatic recreation could match it. The result is a gut punch that makes the almost tedious journey to that point much easier to forgive.
In many ways, it’s Olfa herself who carries Ben Hania’s vision on her already worn-down shoulders. But, boy is it a lot of Olfa, Eya, and Tayssir sitting around and talking. And we mean, a lot. The film may only be 107 minutes, but Ben Hania is so focused on keeping them in the same location (perhaps for security concerns, just speculation), that it often makes the continuous conversation frustratingly monotonous. You even begin to wonder if this material would be better suited for a short film, instead of a feature. But despite Ben Hania sticking to her cinematic formula “Four Daughters” is genuinely hard to forget. It will linger with you for days afterward. That’s mostly due to Olfa’s heartbreaking perseverance to find her children and a wee bit of Ben Hania’s storytelling skill too. [B-]
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