Co-winner of the Golden Eye for Best Documentary at this year’s Cannes, Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hanja’s docudrama Four Daughters tells the story of Olfa Hamrouni and her four daughters –Ghofrane, Rahma, Eya, and Tayssir— in a desperate effort to understand why Ghofrane and Rahma, in 2015 (aged 15 and 16), left home to join ISIS.
To tell the story of Hamrouni and her daughters, Ben Hania experiments with documentary form and makes the making of the film a part of the storytelling. She hires actors to play the missing sisters, and the well-known Tunisian-Egyptian actor Hend Sabri to step into the place of Hamrouni when a scene becomes too painful for Hamrouni to recount.
Ben Hania’s approach creates the effect of a mise-en-abyme (“placement in abyss”) and pulls audience into the narrative space which, for these women, also doubles as a space of reconciliation, self-reflection, and acceptance; we sense that there is something more complex that will be pieced together on camera.
Indeed, Ben Hania’s camera reveals the intergenerational trauma, the abuse that Hamrouni and her daughters endured, political upheavals in Tunisia and, when Eya and Tayssir reenact the games that they played with their now-gone sisters, we see the thinly veiled tragedy of their everyday lives in moments of levity.
However ambivalent one might feel about Ben Hania’s storytelling, through her unimposing camera, we find the strong presence of these women on screen with Hamrouni behind, looking at her two remaining daughters with remembrance of the past and the fear for their future.