More than just victims

To see Kaouther Ben Hania’s latest film as condoning the West’s orientalism is to to ignore the agency of the women in it.

Still from Four Daughters. Image credit Kino Lorber.

There’s a scene in Kaouther Ben Hania’s meta-documentary Four Daughters (Bnet Olfa) when Eya and Tayssir Chikhaoui, two of the main subjects, sit next to Tunisian actresses Nour Karoui and Ichraq Matar on a couch, in what looks like a dressing room. The performers are playing Eya and Tayssir’s sisters, Rahma and Ghofrane, in healing reenactments. The eldest Chikhaouis joined the Islamic State in Libya in 2014, and the family hasn’t had much space to process their absence. A makeup assistant helps Karoui put on a black niqab. They can’t seem to pull the material far enough down her face for her eyes to appear through the slits. “Where are her eyes?” Tayssir shouts. “There they are!” Eya says when the veil is finally adjusted. Eya and Tayssir cannot stop looking at Karoui, as if her face holds answers to the past. 

Since its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in 2023, Four Daughters has garnered widespread acclaim. It received a Palme d’Or on the Croisette, won a César for Best Documentary Film, and was most recently nominated for an Academy Award. Certain critics have interpreted these accolades as evidence that the film caters to a Western ideology rooted in an antagonism to Islam and patronizing relationships bordering on colonial fantasies. These same critics also deemed Ben Hania’s decision to focus on the family matriarch, Olfa Hamrouni, and her daughters as exploitation under the guise of healing generational traumas. However, what these reviews fail to grasp is the complexity of the characters and the intricacies of their experiences with faith, tradition, and societal pressures. To see this film as condoning the West’s orientalist approach is to fail to acknowledge the care and tenderness with which it was made and to ignore the agency of the women in it. 

Critics seem to forget scenes like the one above when discussing Four Daughters, perhaps because it does not actively contribute to a sensational story of Rahma and Ghofrane joining ISIS in Libya. The moment captures a casual and intimate conversation between the four young women, where they discuss their views of pre- and post-revolutionary Tunisia. Rahma (Karoui) and Ghofrane (Matar) start by explaining to Eya and Tayssir, as older sisters do, how during the Ben Ali regime, all head and face coverings including hijabs and niqabs were banned in public spaces. In fact, women wearing them would get arrested and detained in police stations. 

Ghofrane frames these impositions as the state’s method of maintaining a “model of the Tunisian woman.” Rahma proceeds to explain that after the 2011 uprising, following which Ben Ali was ousted, her and her family believed that in electing “those who feared and knew God” the country’s problems would be resolved and the people would finally be free. But none of that happened. “They just want to mold women the way they want,” Eya observes. “They want to map out our lives and make us into what they want us to be. No more, no less.” The camera then closes in on Tayssir, who adds that a woman is “like a puppet; they dress her the way they want and put her wherever they want.” 

As I watch Eya, Tayssir, and their “sisters” dissect these dynamics, I cannot help but think of their desire to break free from these obstacles and their longing for a peaceful and just life. In bringing up the systemic tools used to police the bodies of women throughout time and across social milieus, they demonstrate a sense of awareness and self-knowledge that reflects the very essence of Four Daughters. With this project, Ben Hania has expanded the boundaries of documentary filmmaking to build a safe space for her subjects to explore and reclaim their own narratives.

Throughout Four Daughters, Ben Hania treats Olfa and her children as agents of their lives rather than just as victims of horrific circumstances. The director documents Olfa’s troubling childhood and her failed marriage to paint a candid and detailed portrait of a mother driven to protect her daughters. But Olfa’s tactics—such as beating Ghofrane when she found out she waxed her legs and leaving eight-year-old Eya outside in the rain after thinking she took an inappropriate picture on her phone—end up alienating her children and driving two of them into the hands of danger. At the end of the film, Olfa compares herself to a cat who is so scared to lose her babies she ends up eating them. (She eventually admits that unlike the cat she did not eat her daughters and that’s the reason she lost them.)

Her analogy reminds me of a moment at the start of the film, when Ben Hania declares through voice-over that Rahma and Ghofrane were “eaten by the wolf.” The animal represents the accumulation of social circumstances, systemic exclusion, and violent parenting that both Olfa and her daughters had to endure. In seeking to shield her daughters from the dangers of the world, Olfa herself became their biggest threat and pushed them further into the margins. Ben Hania confronts Olfa and all her contradictions through reenactments of troubling childhood scenes. These staged actions, which feature Hend Sabri as Olfa, become an outlet for Eya and Tayssir to have honest conversations with their mother.

In one of these interventions, Eya makes a list of all the mean things her mother says to her, from “May your blood be spilled on the street!” to “You are a tramp who wants to go out with guys!” As she and Tayssir laugh at these explicit insults, the camera closes in on Olfa as she realizes how deeply her words have cut her children. Eya then admits that whenever she would hear the insults, she would just smile and nod, while inside she fumed. “If I could … I am sorry, but I wanted to strangle her and tell her ‘I am not like that!’” she adds less confidently. Seeing her mother’s shock, Eya quickly reminds Olfa that she is expressing herself for the sake of the movie. But Olfa does not take back her words, even when Sabri calls her selfish. “It hurts her? I understand, but that is how it is. It is the legacy of several generations, a heritage,” Olfa explains. It is precisely this legacy that the film aims to deconstruct and eventually break.   

The depth of Four Daughters’ complexity makes it unlike other movies that discuss radicalization and Islam in Tunisian cinema. Ridha Behi’s recent film The Flower of Aleppo (2016) follows a young mother (Sabri) who travels to Syria to bring her son back from ISIS. The director uses the central family to explore the dichotomy between an interpretation of modernity and visions of religious extremism. In it, we see the father drinking alcohol and the mother taking belly dancing classes. Meanwhile, their son joins a group of radicals who shut down lingerie stores and teach him to use a gun before sending him to join ISIS.

Although Behi’s film also deals with themes of motherhood, it builds a neat narrative of good versus bad, which does not leave any room for human complexity and confusion. Ben Hania dismisses all types of sensationalism and romanticization in her documentary. She purposefully holds a mirror to the viewers, so they can see themselves in the raw contradictions and painful truths of Olfa and her daughters. 

Alongside an intricate mother-daughter relationship, Four Daughters also portrays the unconditional love and adoration the central sisters have for each other. In scenes where the girls break into music and play with each other’s hair while basking in sunshine, we find pockets of softness that complement the multidimensional depiction of Olfa and her daughters. The film showcases how gently they treat each other and themselves in the face of a patriarchal system that violated them and drowned their family in darkness and grief. 

In a more subtle manner, Four Daughters also gestures toward a brighter future—one where Eya and Tayssir reclaim their bodies; where Olfa saves her nine-year-old granddaughter from the Libyan prison where she and her mother are held; and where the entire family continues to heal. 

About the Author

Mariam is a Tunisian writer and social science researcher based in Paris. She delves into the complex topics of colonial legacies, state violence and identity in the North African region. Her work also encompasses cultural and artistic pieces on African cinema as well as evocative poetry.

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