Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, 46, has broken new ground for female Arab filmmakers, gaining her second Oscar nomination of the decade.
Her latest film, the docu-fiction hybrid Four Daughters, has been nominated for Best Documentary Feature Film at the 2024 Academy Awards.
This is the first time an Arab woman filmmaker has earned two Oscar nominations, after The Man Who Sold His Skin won her a nod for Best International Feature Film at the 2021 awards.
Other female Arab directors who have received Oscar nominations include the Palestinian filmmaker Farah Al Nabulsi, whose The Present was also nominated in 2021 in the Best Short Film category, and Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki, nominated for Best International Feature Film in 2019 for her third movie, Capernaum.
Male Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu Assad has been nominated twice for Best International Feature Film. His feature Paradise Now earned the honour in 2006, and Omar did the same in 2014.
While Ben Hania is the first Arab woman from the region to be nominated twice, American actress Catherine Keener, who has Lebanese roots, has been nominated twice for Best Supporting Actress, first in 1999 for Being John Malkovich, then in 2005 for Capote.
Part-Lebanese actress Salma Hayek was nominated for Best Actress in 2003 for Frida.
Ben Hania has made six feature films including Four Daughters, starting her career in 2006 with the short film Brèche.
Speaking to The National in 2023 at the Cannes Film Festival premiere of Four Daughters, she said her first Oscar nomination opened many doors, nearly all of which she chose not to go through.
“After the [Oscar] nomination I had a lot of offers to direct English-speaking films … Not a Marvel movie, but a lot of things,” Ben Hania explained.
“[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,” she added.
Choosing to continue with the documentary that she began in 2016 was initially met with some pushback.
“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?’”
The film follows the family of a Tunisian mother named Olfa Hamrouni, whose two eldest daughters – Rahma and Ghofrane – ran away from home to join an extremist group in Libya.
Ben Hania recruited seasoned Tunisian actress Hend Sabry for the project, who plays Hamrouni in re-enactment sequences, and also interacts with the real-life Hamrouni to discuss the events in documentary scenes, a key aspect of the film's innovative technique.
“I was fascinated by the story of Olfa,” Ben Hania said.
“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.”
Ben Hania's previously nominated The Man Who Sold His Skin followed the story of a Syrian refugee whose body becomes a living art piece, inspired by the story of Tim Steiner, a man who was once a tattoo parlour manager whose body was similarly transformed by Belgian artist Wim Delvoye.
Ben Hania is also the first Arab in history to be nominated in multiple categories.