Four Daughters is promptly proving how layered and experimental documentaries can be. Documentarian Kouther Ben Hania’s latest docu-fiction merges documentary with reenactments in this engrossing story about femininity and family in crisis in Tunisia. It’s also a fresh reminder of the importance of documenting ourselves because our own experiences vanish within moments, but the camera can capture these moments indefinitely. And if they can’t, why just not recreate it? That is exactly what Hania does with her openly empathetic film, which shares many personal insights on joys, repression, and eventually the traumas of religious fundamentalism and the costs of collateral damage from the endless wars that plague the Middle East today. It’s a film of immense compassion that explores the significance of sisterhood and motherhood between four daughters and their mom.
Hania does this with various film techniques and directing methods. While some strategies work better than others, it’s a formally experimental documentary that consists of intimate interviews, backstage settings, vivid reenactments, and newsreel footage where Hania uses both subjects and actual actors to act out the past. These innovations are not by choice, per se. Sadly, two of the daughters have gone missing, and the ending tragically reveals what led to their disappearance.
Courtesy Kino Lorber
Undeniably moving, there are many tonal shifts and styles in the documentary that somewhat work. What would normally feel uneven or even jarring in a narrative feature works for the most part here as the daughters and mother reveal memories that are both amusing and equally heartbreaking. One of the film’s main subjects is Olfa, who is played by Hend Sabri. She is a protective mother who made headlines in 2016 after criticizing Tunisia for spreading state-sponsored propaganda that radicalized her daughters into joining the Islamic State (IS) in Libya. In some regards, Olfa also holds some guilt for their radicalization, as she was a very protective mother who punished one of her daughters for listening to metal music and for dressing in goth clothes with pentagrams, where she psychically abused her in disagreement.
Stylistically, the film is very layered and organic. We aren’t seeing too many reshoots, as Hania’s main goal as a documentarian is to capture the truth. Some of the reenactments become very harrowing, where the emotions from the sisters and the actors become so vivid that even the actor playing the abusive father and husband to Olfa (Majd Mastoura) has to break the fourth fall due to how personal it becomes. Hania keeps the camera rolling to reveal how emotional truth remains absolute. She contracts a rather meta-fiction gimmick that reminds her just how far these traumas go with women.
While the film does bounce around in ideas and hovers around various issues, One of the most distressing moments is the segment in which the women were radicalized. We see how these women were once free-spirited women who wore what they wanted, colored their hair as they wanted, and lived life to the fullest. However, once state propaganda materialized and oppressive men started shaming Arabic women for not wearing hijabs, we saw one of the daughters begin to wear a niqab upon feeling the scrutiny. It becomes even more distressing to learn that ISIS is behind the state-sponsored propaganda that led to the women being indoctrinated.
As much as it is an experimentation of what the documentary medium is still capable of, it’s also rather illuminating in its approach to earning the trust of a traumatic family, knowing just how injurious reliving these events can be. As we move along the journey through these brave women, one can sense that there was a bond and strong trust on display in this film. Sometimes documenting can be the remedy for inner peace and closure.
Four Daughters will be opening Friday, January 19th through Sunday January 21st at the Detroit Film Theatre. For tickets and showtimes, please visit Four Daughters | Detroit Institute of Arts Museum (dia.org)