Olfa's four daughters

Frame from The Four Daughters of Olfa/ Disclosure


Commentary on the film directed by Kaouther Ben Hania

Olfa's four daughters, a film that Tunisian Kaouther Ben Hania directed in 2023, is a wonder: in almost two hours of screening, we watch a family trauma with political repercussions be stirred to the core. Guilty motherhood, misogyny, paternal abuse, solidarity between sisters, suicidal radicalism – the themes and allusions follow one another and are communicated rhizomatically, that is, from a root that gives rise to multiple branches, without respecting strict hierarchical subordination.

The final product is a documentary that resolves itself through metafiction, exploring a narrative strategy of comings and goings around the object it intends to know – in short, how to explain that two of four daughters, aged 15 and 16, abandoned their mother and sisters to join the Islamic Army, known by the acronym ISIS, the radical among the radicals of extremist groups?

Olfa Hamrouni is an assertive Tunisian, raised by an uncompromising mother, in the most liberal of Arab countries, Tunisia – until 2011, few women wore hijab, the “veil that separates man from God” covering the body, but not the face, and even less the niqab, which only leaves the eyes visible. Tunisian bars and restaurants served alcohol without restrictions, unlike most Muslim countries. Ruled the countryresident Ben Ali, who came to power in 1987 and remained in power until 2011, the year of the Jasmine Revolution, the Tunisian version of the Arab spring that shook the Middle East from the second decade of the new millennium onwards.

The fall of the corrupt and authoritarian Ben Ali is a turning point in the life of the country, and especially in the lives of Olfa and her four daughters: in the political chaos that has arisen, radical groups that preach the consolidation of Sharia (Islamic law) as the main source for the new constitution emerged and began to have an active voice. It did not succeed, Tunisia remained a secular state whose religion is Islam. But many did not accept it and were attracted to ISIS, among them the (future) husband of Ghofrane, Olaf's first daughter – she and Rahma, the second daughter, followed in his footsteps and went to neighboring Libya in order to join to the ranks of the Islamic Army.

To tell this story of family breakdown and political radicalization, the director opted for bold language: testimonies from the remainder, Olaf and the youngest daughters, Eya and Tayssir; staging of crucial family events, using actresses for young Olaf (Hend Sabry, born in Tunisia, with a prominent career in Egypt) and the two absent daughters (played by Ichraq Matar and Nour Karoui); use of an actor, the excellent Majd Mastoura, for the male roles, Olaf's husband and lover, and police officer; and alternation not only between interviews and role-plays, but also psychological preparation for these often difficult and painful moments.

There were three levels of organization of cinematographic language – documentary, fiction and metafiction – which, skillfully combined in the editing, lead to an awareness where the revelations that emerge are similar to psychoanalytic therapy. The audience is psychoanalyzed along with the characters.

Olfa's four daughters  was shot in three weeks in an abandoned hotel near Tunis. The scenarios are few and small, the minimum required for each scene: what matters are the real characters narrating their memories and directing the professional actresses, who in turn answer their doubts, in search of motivation.

It is the deconstruction of the show, in the best Brechtian style, invoked by Kaouther Ben Hania to explain the creation of the script: “I wrote the key scene in the characters' lives in the way they told me during the first filming – and I left it open, so that they could to evolve". In the introspection of each of them – especially Olaf, but also Eya and Tayssir – the causes and consequences of female insertion in a Tunisian society reappear, at the intersection between the archaic patriarchal regime and the country's political-social transformations.

Kaouther Ben Hania was the first Muslim woman to be invited to compete at the Oscars for foreign films, with The Man Who Sold His Skin, released in 2021. With Olfa's four daughters repeats the dose, after having won the award for best documentary at the 2023 Cannes Festival.

*João Lanari Bo He is a professor of cinema at the Faculty of Communication at the University of Brasília (UnB). Author, among other books, of Cinema for Russians, Cinema for Soviets (Time Bazaar) [https://amzn.to/45rHa9F]


Olfa's four daughters (Les Filles d'Olfa)
Tunisia, documentary, 2023, 107 minutes.
Direction and script: Kaouther Ben Hania.
Cast: Hend Sabri, Olfa Hamrouni, Eya Chikahoui.

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