One of the buzziest titles in this year’s Cannes Film Festival is Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters.
It’s rare for the festival to include non-fiction films in competition, and this year there are two, with her film joined by Wang Bing’s garment factory-set Youth.
“I think it was about time to do this,” says Ben Hania, 45, noting that Nicolas Philibert’s On the Adamant and Laura Poitras’ All the Beauty and the Bloodshed – both documentaries – won the last two major film festivals, in Berlin and Venice respectively. “Documentaries are fascinating, wonderful and I think that Cannes and [Delegate General] Thierry Fremaux … they understood something about this.”
Whether that means Four Daughters is in line to win the prestigious Palme d’Or this Saturday remains to be seen. Certainly, it’s a radical reinterpretation of the documentary form.
The film tells of Olfa Hamrouni, a Tunisian woman who became demonised in 2016 after her two eldest daughters ran away to join ISIS in Libya.
“I was fascinated by the story of Olfa,” admits Ben Hania. “In cinema, we love people with contradictions, people with flaws. And I thought it was about time to do something about a mother-daughter relationship [and] the inheritance of trauma.”
She started the project back in 2016, while finishing up Zaineb Hates the Snow, a six years in the making documentary in which she followed a young Tunisian girl who loses her father. After making contact with Olfa, she began filming but wasn’t happy with the initial results.
“I put it aside and thought ‘Maybe I will never do it.’” Ben Hania went on to make her 2020 feature The Man Who Sold His Skin, which became the first ever Tunisian feature film nominated for an Oscar. But she couldn’t forget Olfa. “I was in contact with Olfa and her daughters all this time, which allowed me to build a strong relationship with them.”
While Ben Hania “hates” the idea of re-enactments in documentaries, when actors come in to play real-life figures, she then hit on a novel concept. “I thought, ‘Maybe we can take the cliché of re-enactments and push it further.’” And so in Four Daughters, Olfa appears, but is also played by Egyptian-Tunisian star Hend Sabrina.
Her two younger daughters, Eya and Taysir, play themselves. And Ghorfran and Rahma, the two that disappeared when they were 16 and 15 respectively, are played by actresses Ichraq Matar and Nour Karoui.
This very artificial construct served a deep purpose, allowing the real Olfa, Eya and Taysir to open up old wounds about the radicalised Ghorfran and Rahma. Ben Hania was very sensitive to their situation. “Olfa and her daughters are used to being judged. If there is something that makes them upset, its judgment,” she says.
“The idea was to make a new family – the two actresses instead of the two missing daughters. And then the magic happened because the two actors look like the real daughters, even physically. So Olfa adopted them immediately – there is a kind of strong sisterhood between them.”
Primarily, the film is like on-camera therapy, digging into Olfa’s past, one where she suffered violence and aggression from the men around her. But as Eya and Taysir reveal, they too experienced beatings at the hands of their mother, who became overbearing and overprotective.
“I think patriarchy can be also represented by women,” suggests Ben Hania. “When you are in such a violent society, you are in survival mode. And survival mode, it means you should fight. This is what she did. She became a man. You are not in a society where you have the luxury that everyone is polite.”
Growing up under such oppression, is it any wonder that her elder daughters were seduced by ISIS? Rahma ended up marrying Noureddine Chouchane, a Tunisian ISIS member believed to have planned attacks on western tourists in Tunisia.
Ben Hania understands why youngsters get radicalised. “It’s the same [expletive], everywhere. When I see the lone shooter in the United States, they’re teenagers … it’s the same human brain, human soul. When you are adolescent, you have a fascination for death. There is something very Goth about adolescence. ISIS is very Goth – in a dangerous way. It’s morbid.”
After narrowly escaping death from US military air strikes, Olfa’s daughters are now in jail in Libya, and one has a young child – Olfa’s granddaughter, who she has never met.
“It’s a tragedy to see a child growing up in jail,” says Ben Hania. “She went to jail when she was five months old and today she’s eight years. And we all know that the first seven years of your life will decide what you will be. If this girl doesn’t leave this place, she will also be violent.”
As the end credits state, Tunisia hopes to repatriate the prisoners, although Olfa’s granddaughter doesn’t even have identity papers. “She doesn’t exist,” says Ben Hania. “In the [so-called] 'Islamic State', they have their own papers. She has nothing.”
The hope is that Four Daughters may help shine a spotlight on their plight, much in the way Ben Hania’s recent success has helped put Arab cinema at the centre of the filmmaking universe. After The Man Who Sold His Skin, everything changed for her.
“After the [Oscar] nomination I had a lot of offers to direct English-speaking films.” Like what? A Marvel movie? “Not a Marvel movie, but a lot of things,” she says, adding that agents and studios wanted her as part of a “package”. “[They say] ‘We have this book, we have this screenwriter, and we want an Oscar-nominated director.’ So a woman, Muslim, Arabic … I cross all [the boxes]. So it was an education.”
While this may suggest that there is still a lot of short-sightedness in Hollywood, and a certain amount of box-ticking to appear to be diverse, Ben Hania remained dedicated to finishing Four Daughters rather than basking in Oscar glory. “When people asked what I would do next, I’d say I’m doing a documentary in Tunisia, [and] it’s like ‘Are you crazy?’”
Nevertheless, her next film will be a feature in Tunisia. Promoting greater Arabic representation through her cinema remains vital. “It’s important to have different stories, to tell stories from inside,” she says. “We need more angles, more diversity.”
The Cannes Film Festival runs until Saturday.