Olfa had four daughters. The two oldest ones were “devoured by the wolf”. The mother and two younger siblings were left grappling with guilt and grief. The circumstances under which they went missing and their supposed whereabouts (are they dead?) are not revealed until the end of this multi-layered and inventive documentary. The effectiveness of Four Daughters relies in keeping audiences guessing what happened to the two missing daughters (Ghofrane and Rahma, born in 1999 and 2000 respectively), gradually revealing that dark events that unfolded after the Tunisian Revolution, which took place in 2010/2011. The fate of the family becomes inextricably linked to their nation’s.
Two professional actresses – Nour Karoui and Ichraq Matar – are hired in order to play the missing daughters. The two youngest ones (Eya and Taysser, born in 2003 and 2005 respectively) play themselves. A further actress plays Olfa in the most difficult situations. However inventive, this isn’t a documentary about the nature of filmmaking and acting. This is not Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Hello Cinema (1996). Instead, the female director focuses on the turbulent relationship between Olfa and her daughters, the struggle between tradition and change, the political developments that reshaped not just Tunisia but the entire Arab world (the Revolution would eventually trigger the Arab Spring, with some very undesirable repercussions), and the paradoxical relationship between the revolutionary and the reactionary (ie how rebellion can lapse into strict doctrine).
Two male actors play the father of the girls and a further lover of Olfa, a young and good-looking man called Wassim. The matriarch holds the view that a woman’s body belongs to her partner, a belief which she tries to push on her children. The two eldest daughters – particularly the more outgoing Rahma – are role models to the two young siblings. Olfa boils with rage when they start wearing “goth” and “antichrist” attire and behaving like “sluts”. But this isn’t a straightforward story of a mother grappling with rebel teens. In fact, nothing is as straightforward as it seems in Four Daughters.
It soon becomes evident that Western freedom paradigms are incompatible with the Arab world. For example: the hijab and the niqab became symbols of liberation in the aftermath of the Tunisian Revolution, with many young people opting to wear them as an anti-establishment gesture. That’s because pre-Revolution leader Ben Ali forbade the items. This must be particularly difficult for the French to comprehend. The European country that ruled Tunisia until 1956 banned the two garments by arguing precisely the opposite: that they represent oppression. Incidentally, the face cover ban in France and the Tunisian Revolution both happened in the year of 2011. Rahma is the first one to cover up. At first, Ghofrane mocks her sister: “you look like Batman”. Eventually, all four are entirely dressed in black, resembling a “small Daesh cell unit”. A number of bizarre twists and turns reshape the relationship with their increasingly despondent mother. A sordid burial scene roughly halfway through the movie sets the tone for what’s about to come.
This is an unusual documentary that blends reenactments with actual confessions. It isn’t always possible to distinguish staged from spontaneous dialogue, as the director wilfully blurs the line between dramatisation and real interaction. The conversations are often tense and vertiginous. They expose and dissect the generational conflicts that could tear the small, all-female family asunder. The realisation that she is making the same mistakes as her very own mother is a particularly painful one for Olfa.
The settings aren’t realistic at all. Most of the film takes place in what looks like a carefully composed scenery. This leaves viewers guessing why the director opted not to film inside Olfa’s family residence in Tunisia. Was this a creative choice, fitting for a film fused with lyrical freedoms? Or are there more practical reasons? It all comes full circle at the end. That’s when the wolf that devoured Ghofrane and Rahman reveals his big, ugly teeth.
Four Daughters premiered in the Official Competition of the 76th Cannes Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. The film won the 40th Munich International Film Festival, just a month later. Its UK premiere takes place in October at the BFI London Film Festival. Also showing at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival.