Four Daughters, a surreal blend of documentary, memory, meta-fictional re-enactment and therapy now shortlisted for an Oscar, originated years ago: in 2016, when a Tunisian woman named Olfa Hamrouni took to local news to call out her country’s failure to combat the scourge of Isis. And the year before that, when her two radicalized eldest daughters, Ghofrane and Rahma Chikhaoui, fled to join the group in Libya. And the years before that, when Hamrouni struggled to raise her four daughters – the two eldest, rebellious and fiery; the two youngest, keen sponges of conflict – with an iron fist and a housekeeper’s salary.
Hamrouni first caught the eye of Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania on the news, pleading with authorities to repatriate her daughters from a Libyan prison in which they’ve been detained on suspicion of terrorist activities (and after a US anti-terror strike killed Rahma’s husband in 2016). Ben Hania was impressed by “her ability to tell her story”, she said. Hamrouni and her two younger daughters, Eya and Tayssir, “have the right words to describe their feelings, their story, their evolution of events”.
Ben Hania, a filmmaker known for her documentary background, wanted to delve deeper into the story of a family through a verité-style documentary. However, she realized that the format was inadequate in capturing the complexity of the situation and the motivations of Ghofrane and Rahma, who had gone from being teenage goths to becoming fundamentalists. The footage she had wasn’t satisfactory, and even Hamrouni agreed. After several years, Ben Hania achieved international recognition for her 2020 film The Man Who Sold His Skin, which was nominated for an Oscar in the Best International Feature category. Despite having many project options, she decided to return to Tunisia and speak with Hamrouni and her two remaining daughters with a new idea: what if they used actors to portray the missing sisters?
The film “Four Daughters” opens with a unique blend of reality and fiction, as well as memory and performance. Eya and Tayssir, who were 11 and 8 years old when their sisters left, are now in their late teens and meet actors Ichraq Matar and Nour Karoui, who portray Ghofrane and Rahma while wearing niqabs. They all comment on the striking resemblance between them. The initial joy of the family reunion with Hamrouni quickly turns to tears when she is replaced by her own doppelgänger, played by Tunisian-Egyptian actor Hend Sabri. The two actresses collaborate on how to accurately portray Hamrouni’s memories. In a creative choice that also highlights the disregard for men in this family, a single actor, Majd Mastoura, plays all the male roles including Hamrouni’s negligent husband, the girls’ alcoholic father, her manipulative ex-boyfriend, and a Tunisian police officer.
Ben Hania did not appreciate re-enactment, which is often used in documentaries to create dramatic or exaggerated effects. She believed it was more like fiction than a true representation of reality. Instead, she, along with Hamrouni, Eya, and Tayssir, had a different idea. They wanted to have the women themselves act out and direct re-enactments of their own memories as they shared their personal testimonies. This served as a way for them to find closure, clarity, or to feel more in control through a hybrid performance. It was also helpful that Hamrouni, who had been accused of fabricating her story, felt that her words would be more credible if they were delivered by a well-known actor like Sabri. Ben Hania explained, “I wanted to take the cliché and use it in a different way, similar to theater. We are recreating a memory from the past in the present and also questioning its accuracy.”
The study has flexible boundaries; during filming, the facade of performance fluctuates as the participants deviate from their assigned roles, breaking the illusion of time and fact. There are occasional news segments featuring Hamrouni in an aggressive state. Ben Hania includes some of the behind-the-scenes discussions – a disagreement between Sabri and Eya over whether to use profanity (Eya argues it would be inaccurate if they didn’t); the actors discussing how the headscarf went from a symbol of resistance to a tool of oppression in post-revolution Tunisia; a conversation between Hamrouni and Sabri about the level of personal investment in portraying a history of suffering. “I have learned to protect myself,” says Sabri. “But what if you can’t?” Hamrouni ponders. “If you can’t shake off the character? If they unsettle you because they feel too real?”
Occasionally, the sisters present themselves as a jovial and talkative family, the type with whom you could discuss personal grooming, as Eya and Tayssir do, or engage in imaginative games about nonexistent food. Hamrouni watches from the doorway, reminiscing about these moments as some of her happiest memories. However, the reenactments uncover a history of suffering – steeped in misogyny, growing up poor and being forced into marriage, Hamrouni raised her daughters with a fear of their own sexuality. Both physically and emotionally abused by their parents, Ghofrane and Rahma turned to fundamentalism as a means of escape. In a scene where Eya brandishes a knife, both sisters hint at past instances of sexual abuse by Hamrouni’s ex-boyfriend. Disturbed by these revelations, Majd, portraying the ex-stepfather, storms out; Eya urges him to return.
Ben Hania described the shoot as an open discussion that took place over a period of four weeks in Tunisia at the same location. There were moments where off-camera discussions, restarts, and redirections were necessary. She mentioned having to make quick decisions to avoid certain topics. Overall, it was a very emotional experience.
Hamrouni is a multifaceted individual who stands out, unafraid in her pursuit of finding her daughters. She is unapologetically vocal, yet constrained by her fears when it comes to raising them. At times, she can be kind and loving, but also harsh and critical. She holds strong religious beliefs, but is highly doubtful of extremist ideologies. “She had this paradox where she embodied and safeguarded the patriarchal system, as an abstract concept,” stated Ben Hania. “And she felt the need to do so in order to protect herself and her daughters. However, the outcome was the exact opposite.”
Strategies for survival, asserting whatever influence is possible, the undeniable impact of male dominance on one’s independence – there are similarities to be found with movements such as the anti-ERA activists in the United States, or women from various cultures who struggle against the very things they also represent. “People may assume: ‘Oh, they’re Muslim,’ or something like that, but upon closer examination, it’s just different versions of the same issue,” explained Ben Hania.
The definitive reasons for Ghofrane and Rahma’s departure are still unknown, as described by Ben Hania as only “keys”. The family has yet to be reunited. Ben Hania, her team, and Hamrouni have been urging the Tunisian government to bring back the sisters and Ghofrane’s daughter Fatma, who has been held captive for eight years. Although Ghofrane and Rahma have not watched the film, they have been told about it by their sisters over the phone. According to the film’s ending, Hamrouni, Eya, and Tayssir remain optimistic about their return. In the meantime, in Four Daughters, they seek whatever healing they can find.
The film “Four Daughters” can now be rented online in the United States and will be released in the United Kingdom on March 22nd.