The hybrid documentary Four Daughters – which was in the Official Selection at Cannes earlier this year – is an extremely audacious and inventive piece of filmmaking. Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania recruits two actresses as stand-ins for two young women lost under very dramatic circumstances. The outcome is a politically-charged and heart-wrenching drama blending family tragedy and politics. The effectiveness of Four Daughters relies in keeping audiences guessing what happened to the two missing daughters, gradually revealing the dark events that unfolded after the Tunisian Revolution of 2010/11. The fate of the family becomes inextricably linked to their nation’s.
I met with Kaouther Ben Hania at the 3rd Red Sea International Film Festival. She is a highly intelligent and assertive woman. She seemed a little uncomfortable about sharing her personal opinion, and discussing the artist behind the film, and instead insisted that we concentrated on the film. The interaction was brief, a little tense, however very insightful.
Victor Fraga – It’s a real pleasure to meet you. I saw your film in Cannes. I was impressed and gave it a heartfelt five-star review.
Kaouther Ben Hania – That was a long time ago! [Cannes was held in May).
VF – Could you please talk a little bit about the importance of showing your film in Saudi Arabia, a country with such a young film industry?
KBH – For me, it was really easy. The screening was two days ago and it was really, really special. I’ve shown the movie in so many places. I mean, mainly Western countries. This was the regional premiere. The film was released only in Tunisia, nowhere else in the Middle East and North Africa. Tunisia is very close to the topic. But here we are at a very good distance. The young Saudi people came to me and said that my film was an eye-opening experience.
VF – Have you experienced the struggle between modernity and tradition in your own family? Similarly to Olfa [the mother in Four Daughters], did your mother ever tell you that your body belongs to your partner?
KBH – I think I was lucky because for my parents, the most important thing was my studies. And I was good at school. That was more important than talking about partners. All parents want their children to be with the partner, to have a grandson. But that wasn’t my parents’ priority. They wanted me to study because my father couldn’t finish his studies. That was deep in his heart.
VF – Would you say you were lucky as a Tunisian?
KBH – I think all Tunisian, even the conservative families, are like that. I came from a conservative family. The studies are the most important thing.
VF – The West, particularly France and Belgium, like to portray the veil as a sign of oppression. You film reveals the opposite: the hijab and the niqab became symbols of liberation in the aftermath of the Tunisian Revolution. In your personal opinion, does the veil imprison or liberate?
KBH – Depends of the context. Because in France, for example, when they portrayed the veil in this way, like an oppressive thing, young girls want to put it as a sign of rebellion against the French rules. On the other hand, for women who don’t want to be veiled and have family opposed, it’s a sign of submission.
VF – You’re not wearing a veil, does that mean it’s a sign of oppression to you?
KBH – I just answered you. It depends on the context.
VF – And for you personally, does that also depend on the context?
KBH – For me, nobody should tell a woman what to wear. If a woman wants to wear a veil, it’s her business. It’s political. The government are trying to police a women’s body. For me, it’s a sign of patriarchal thinking. If you look at the history of humanity, back in Babylon is a sign of separating women owned by men. So it’s a sign of patriarchy at the origin. But then the things changed. It’s all the complexity of history.
VF – Can Western paradigms of freedom and democracy be applied to the Arab world?
KBH – Yeah. We are all human beings. It’s not like enlightenment and philosophy belong just to the West. They do something horrible: they keep these incredible value to themselves and then colonise other countries. They think: “indigenous people don’t deserve us to share our values”. This is the most contradictory thing they did. I think everybody wants to be free, everybody wants freedom of speech. They don’t want to share those values with the people they colonised. They annexed them, almost. It was the real clash. Do you not have any questions about my movie. you only have questions about myself?
VF – Have Ghofrane and Rahma [the two girls missing in the film] seen Four Daughters, and what did they think of it?
KBH – No, they can’t see the movie because they are in jail. But their mother and sisters talked to them and described it to them shot by shot.
VF – And did they say anything about i?
KBH – Yes, they are very happy that their story is being told. They don’t want to be forgotten in jail. They want something to happen, they want to be repatriated to Tunisia and have a fair trial. The film is a means to change their situation.
VF – Was the Tunisian feminist movie Fatma (Khaled Ghorbal, 2000) an influence? Or maybe Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Hello Cinema (1996)?
KBH – Yes, I absolutely I love that movie. The Iranian movie [Hello Cinema] was a huge influence on my work, especially in this movie [Four Daughters]. Hello Cinema and [Abbas] Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) were a huge influence! Are you Iranian?
VF – No, I’m Brazilian and I live in London. Mohsen Makhmalbaf also lives in London, and he is a friend of mine. I’ll tell him about your appreciation, I’m sure he’ll be delighted. Have you not seen the Tuninian film Fatma, about a successful career woman whose life is destroyed after her husband finds out she was raped?
KBH – No, I haven’t. I heard about it, and I missed it many times.
VF – Oh, you must! It’s an incredible piece of filmmaking. Just to wrap up, do you think European and Arab audiences relate to your film differently?
KBH – Not at all! And this was a big surprise. There are a few subtle differences, you know, but I get the same questions everywhere. People relate to my film in the same way in France and Saudi Arabia, and that’s very surprising.
VF – have you encountered any resistance to your film. Has anyone tried to boycott it?
KBH – No, I haven’t. At least not yet! [Laughs wholeheartedly].
Kaouther is pictured at the top of this interviews, image by the Red Sea International Film Festival. Kaouther is pictured alongside Victor in the second image, by Victor Fraga.