Sarajevo 2023 review: Four Daughters (Kaouther Ben Hania)

Four Daughters is a moving, striking piece of cinema that both enlightens and challenges, and once again serves as a resounding testimony to Ben Hania’s immense talents as a storyteller and observer of the human condition.”

Five women sit in a living room – the oldest in the middle, and surrounded by her daughters, as they fondly discuss the past. However, we soon learn who these people are – Olfa Hamrouni is the matriarch, a single mother who raised four daughters on her own after her husband absconded from their family without warning, making her the sole breadwinner. An increasingly difficult task for anyone in Tunisia at the time, especially as the country was inching closer to the Jasmine Revolution. However, only two of the four young women that sit at her sides are her daughters – the two oldest were, as she puts it, “consumed by the wolf”, with this proverbial predator becoming known later in the film. To replace the missing daughters, director Kaouther Ben Hania hires two actors to portray them, being integrated into their daily lives, learning about this family and taking part in vivid recreations of particular moments in their history. These ambitious ideas ultimately coalesce into Four Daughters (Les filles d’Olfa), in which the director crafts one of the most compelling films of the year, an engaging blend of fact and fiction that takes us through a couple of decades in the life of a family that may seem ordinary at first, but carry experiences and anecdotes that paint a vivid and often quite harrowing portrait of the conditions of women in Tunisia over the past two decades. The film is a unique examination of identity in the face of adversity, a theme that is all too resonant in the contemporary world.

The director’s intentions when crafting this film were clear, and based around two broad narrative threads that she uses to weave these ideas together. Primarily, Four Daughters is a film that uses conversations around femininity and the role of women in North African society as an entry point into a broad discussion on politics and social structure. Taking place around the Tunisian Revolution (which occurred in the early 2010s), the film focuses on the shifting nature of this society – Ben Hania was not looking to make a definitive history of that period, nor an expansive, detailed odyssey around feminist ideology over time. Instead, she uses small fragments of each to complement one another, using the past as an elegant supplement to the present narrative; both at the time represented in the film and in the present day, where we see these characters reflect, offering their unique recollections of that time in their lives. History is best told not by those in power, but rather by the near-anonymous people that experienced it first-hand, which is precisely how Ben Hania constructs this film. It focuses on the fascinating intersections between female identity and cultural practices, which is particularly resonant considering the tumultuous era in which these characters lived, and continue to exist, giving Four Daughters such a raw, honest atmosphere.

Not necessarily a political statement, but rather a carefully constructed social documentary that uses political and religious ideology to support and deepen its portrayal of this family, the film makes many fascinating choices in its creation. There are numerous aspects of Four Daughters that draw our attention and help us understand the plight of these women, but perhaps the most intriguing aspect is the structure of the film. Ben Hania has a unique manner of telling this story, which is essentially to have the remaining members of this family play themselves in re-enactments of key moments in their lives, but to have the two missing girls played by actors. Suddenly, what seemed to be a relatively simple exercise in exploring the trials and tribulations of this family becomes something else entirely, flourishing into an odd but captivating experimental film in which reality and fiction don’t only blur, but begin to overlap in ways that many of us may not have even thought possible – and yet it all remains so extraordinarily cohesive and logical, with the director’s precise approach to looking at this subject producing extraordinary results. It is not the first instance of a director using both reality and fiction to tell a particular story, but rather than doing it in such a way that we aren’t sure what is real and what is a fabrication, Ben Hania implies that they can exist concurrently and in dialogue with one another. The inventive structure ultimately leads to a rich and daring assemblage of ideas, all working towards portraying the intricate details of this family and their experiences.

We are predisposed to classifying art – it almost seems as if a work can only be valid if it fits into a particular category. Four Daughters is a film that actively shows disdain for this concept, as it is nearly impossible to pinpoint it to a particular style, genre or even artistic movement. Ben Hania is a truly original filmmaker, someone who has gradually and methodically been breaking down the boundaries between fact and fiction, making it clear that these are not binary concepts but rather can be interwoven in fascinating and meaningful ways, which lays the groundwork for a truly audacious work of experimental storytelling. Even in terms of its emotional content, this film is quite remarkable – based on the premise, you would be safe to assume that it would be a sombre affair (and the third act is deeply unsettling), but there are well-placed moments of humour that temporarily alleviate the tension and allow the film to showcase a broader perspective on the lives of these women, showing their trials and tribulations in vibrant, meaningful detail. Steadily moving through the past and present, often at the same time, Four Daughters is a unique and captivating experience that gives the viewer an intimate glimpse into the daily routine of this family, placing emphasis on their shared and individual trauma, as well as their journey to understanding the sudden and inexplicable changes that occurred years previously, which caused wounds that have yet to heal. It is a moving, striking piece of cinema that both enlightens and challenges, and once again serves as a resounding testimony to Ben Hania’s immense talents as a storyteller and observer of the human condition.