Remarkable real-life tales and narration makes a huge impact as Tunisia and Morocco both triumph, giving Arab and Maghreb/African filmmakers an incredible fillip this year at Cannes…
By Suman Bhuchar
KAOUTHER BEN HANIA, the Tunisian director of the film, ‘Four Daughters‘ has won three prizes at the Cannes Film Festival (Best Documentary*), the Cannes Citizenship prize and the Positive Cinema award.
It is a gripping and insightful docu-fiction about memory, trauma and loss.
This is the real life story of Olfa Hamrouni and her four daughters, before two were taken away and ‘devoured by wolves’, as we are told.
From the opening shot, the film challenges you with its experimental filmmaking style.
You are not sure if you will be watching a film about the process of portraying a fact into fiction or a fiction that is about the process of creating a truth. (It’s all very Brechtian but engrossing).
Ben Hania, who is off camera, speaks to the mother, Olfa and then introduces her to actor, Hend Sabri (a very famous star), telling her that she will play her in the scenes which get too harrowing for the mother.
The women then have a chat where Olfa tells her “you will have to feel everything”, while the artist replies: “As actors we keep our distances”.
We meet the two real life daughters who are Eya and Tayssir and then the director introduces them to the two actors – Nour Karoul (who enacts Rahma Chikhaoui) and Ichraq Matar (who enacts, Ghofrane Chikaoui) who are playing the two missing sisters.
When the two women walk dressed in hijab and resemble the missing sisters, they come and sit next to the mother and it’s a moving and tearful moment.
“This is what will be painful to reopen old wounds,” says the mother.
Obviously, as an audience if you don’t know the real story of Olfa, it doesn’t matter as things unravel gradually and we learn that the two missing sisters were radicalised by preachers in Tunisia and ended up joining Daesh (ISIS).
It’s all set in a house recreated in a studio space, when Olfa talks about her life, her violent upbringing and how she was given in an arranged marriage which she resisted and her husband is a brute while her own sister advised him to throw Olfa in the corner and assault her, as they want to see the bloodied sheet.
One male actor, Majd Mastoura plays all the men’s roles. This particular marriage didn’t work out and later, Olfa talks about how she fell in love with a guy and learnt about sex and desire.
‘Four Daughters’ is a very candid and engrossing portrayal of a fractured family recovering and processing trauma.
The cycle of violence continues when the daughters reveal how cruelly the mother beat them if she felt they stepped out of line.
The “wolfs” (of course) turn out to be the radical preachers who ended up convincing the two girls to become jihadi brides and both ended up marrying Islamic militants who were later killed.
Ultimately this whole process of being interviewed is redemptive and healing for Olfa and her daughters.
Spoiler alert (skip the next paragraph, and read from * to avoid)
In a cruel twist of fate, in the end, when the missing sisters are shown giving an interview to camera – it’s not clear if it’s archive – or to the filmmaker – both sisters reside in a Libyan camp and were sentenced to 16 years in prison in 2023 and we also find out that Ghofrane has an eight-year-old old daughter who has spent her whole life in prison.
*The other film which also received the Best Documentary Prize was ‘The Mother of All Lies’ from first-time Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir.
It involves the filmmaker looking at her own family – both her parents and grandmother and recreating the history of Casablanca and Morocco through their personal testimonies.
Both the films can now be automatically considered for the Oscars as the L’Oeil prize puts them into consideration, without a cinema release being assured. ‘The Mother of All Lies’ arrived at the festival without a distributor.
All pictures: © Courtesy of Festival De Cannes