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Oscars: Four Daughters is a Tunisian masterpiece—what makes the film groundbreaking

Four Daughters
Eya and Tayssir Chikhaoui appear as themselves in Four Daughters, but some other characters are played by actors. Image from Four Daughters by Kaouther Ben Hania.

By Florence MartinGoucher College

Four Daughters is the story of a Tunisian family torn apart by an extremist Islamic group. It’s won several major documentary awards and is nominated for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar. This makes its director Kaouther Ben Hania the first Arab woman ever to receive two Oscar nominations.

Ben Hania has blazed a trail with powerful and politically poignant films featuring women and is the subject of several studies by North African cinema expert Florence Martin. We asked her to tell us more.


Who is Kaouther Ben Hania?

Kaouther Ben Hania is considered one of the leading post-revolution Tunisian film-makers. Yet, she is difficult to pinpoint as a director.

Born in Sidi Bouzid, where a young vendor set himself on fire and ignited the Arab Spring (the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions of 2011), she grew up in Tunisia.

Wanting to become a writer, she went to study literature in France and then entered the Femis film school in Paris. Her film production has alternated between documentaries and fiction for more than 20 years.

What are her most important films?

She’s made several short documentaries and short fiction films both before and after the 2011 revolution. Her first feature documentary, Challat of Tunis (2013), looks like what French filmmaker Agnès Varda used to call a “documenteur” (a lying documentary or mockumentary).

Recurring themes punctuate the films of this transnational feminist director: childhood, violence against women, religion, the possible consequences of revolution, migration, the various forms of patriarchy. In all her films, however, humour and irony spring up at the most unexpected moments.

Her first fiction feature, Beauty and the Dogs (2017), is shot in a documentary style. Nominated for a Cannes Film Festival award, it tells the story of a young woman’s attempts to report the rape she has just endured to the hospital and the police, all in vain, over the course of a night. The plot gives a stark image of how patriarchy rules over Tunisian institutions, even after the Arab Spring.

Four Daughters Kaouther Ben Hania. Photo by Vera de Kok / Wikimedia Commons.
Four Daughters director Kaouther Ben Hania is the only Arab woman to receive two Oscar nominations. Photo by Vera de Kok / Wikimedia Commons.

Her second feature, The Man Who Sold His Skin (2020), plays out at the unlikely intersection of two universes: the art market and the world of transnational refugees. It follows a Syrian refugee’s journey from Lebanon to Belgium. A renowned artist tattoos his back with a Schengen (European) visa, transforming him into an art installation. It won several awards in Europe and the Arab world and was nominated for an Oscar for Best International Feature.

So her 2024 Oscar nomination came as no surprise. The Man Who Sold His Skin premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in official competition in 2023, winning the documentary prize. It has garnered 14 other awards in Europe.

I personally consider her to be one of the most creative and versatile film-makers in the world at this stage. And Four Daughters is her most daring film to date.

What is Four Daughters about?

It draws on a widely reported media story in Tunisia in 2015. Two sisters—Ghofrane and Rahma—leave their family (their mother, Olfa, and two younger sisters) to join ISIS—an extremist, terrorist Muslim group—in Libya. Ben Hania hears Olfa’s story on the radio and sees her being interviewed on TV. Why on earth would young women do that? The story unfolds in three acts.

2011: the revolution ousts Tunisia’s leader Ben Ali. Olfa, a strong woman, decides to do “her own revolution” and divorces her husband and father of her four girls. A patriarchal avatar, Olfa keeps her daughters on a short leash and is occasionally violent with them.

Watch the trailer for Four Daughters.

2013: Saudi preachers descend on their neighbourhood and convince the girls to wear the niqab (a head-to-toe black veil dissonant with the traditional white veils of Tunisia). Within two years Ghofrane leaves the family to join ISIS, soon followed by Rahma, who marries a terrorist who is wanted worldwide. The story makes the news.

2015: Olfa and her two remaining daughters are thrown into the spotlight while they mourn their loss in different ways. Olfa says: “the eldest, Rahma and Ghofrane, have been devoured by the wolves.”

Ben Hania is fascinated by her character. She decides to film a documentary about her but soon realizes that Olfa is acting the role of the guilty, mourning mother that the media expects of her. Liberating Olfa from this media image requires time and distance, and Ben Hania realizes she needs to direct her subject differently—by listening to the voices of those around Olfa.

Why is there excitement about Four Daughters?

Four Daughters is exciting in so many ways that I cannot do it justice in the space of this interview. Ben Hania has devised a cinematic apparatus that transcends the usual borders of a documentary.

She invites Tunisian stars to help the characters reveal their “inner truth” by acting out the events that led Rahma and Ghofrane to leave. An actress plays Olfa when things get too hard for her to experience a second time. An actor plays all the men in the film. Two other actresses play the disappeared sisters.

However, the director focuses on exchanges between the actors and the characters as they are telling their story. We are no longer dealing with a traditional documentary, but with cinema as Ben Hania understands it: documentaries or fiction films can lie, but they must always unearth a profound truth in the process.

While actors break the fourth wall (talking directly to other characters or to the audience), what the viewer receives is authentic emotions. Ben Hania enrolls everyone on the set to exhume narratives and emotions and perform them in the present. The effect is stunning and the intimate narrative gripping.

How does this reflect women’s documentaries in the region?

Ben Hania joins a cadre of North African women documentary makers who all share the authorship of their documentaries with the subjects of the films. I am thinking of Moroccan filmmakers Dalila EnnadreLeila Kilani or Tala Hadid, who allow their subjects to occupy the entire screen and soundtrack—no voiceover from a godlike (male) director.

Ben Hania builds an empathetic link between characters, actors, director and viewer and creates a new documentary genre here that surpasses what directors from the region have done before. She paves the way for even more creativity in the African continent.The Conversation

Florence Martin is Dean John B. Van Meter Professor of French Transnational Studies at Goucher College. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.