Summoning and questioning the past

Kaouther Ben Hania on Tunisia’s Oscar submission Four Daughters

by Anne-Katrin Titze

Kaouther Ben Hania on Tunisia’s Oscar submission Four Daughters (Les Filles d'Olfa): “It’s a movie about real people but it’s also a reality that doesn’t exist outside this movie.”
Kaouther Ben Hania on Tunisia’s Oscar submission Four Daughters (Les Filles d'Olfa): “It’s a movie about real people but it’s also a reality that doesn’t exist outside this movie.”

Kaouther Ben Hania (winner of L'Œil d'Or, the documentary prize at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival) in Four Daughters (Les Filles d'Olfa, Tunisia’s Oscar submission and a Short List selection of DOC NYC) tells the story of Olfa Hamrouni and her four daughters. Eya Chikhaoui and Tayssir Chikhaoui, the two youngest, are with their mother, while the two oldest Ghofrane Chikaoui and Rahma Chikhaoui are imprisoned in Libya for terrorism charges. In the film they are portrayed by actors Ichrak Matar and Nour Karoui respectively, and the mother finds herself doubled as well, by actress Hind Sabri, for scenes that, as the director explains in the hybrid documentary, might be too upsetting for Olfa to relive. Ben Hania’s The Man Who Sold His Skin had received a Best International Film Oscar nomination in 2021 and her intense and unwavering Beauty And The Dogs (Aala Kaf Ifrit) was Tunisia’s Oscar submission in 2018.

Eya Chikhaoui, Ichrak Matar, Nour Karoui and Tayssir Chikhaoui in Four Daughters
Eya Chikhaoui, Ichrak Matar, Nour Karoui and Tayssir Chikhaoui in Four Daughters

In a brilliant move that defies fiction as well as documentary conventions, multiple layers are laid bare. The set is clearly a set, the actors also interact as themselves with the family, who, seeing themselves and their past from outside, discover new truths, together with us. Precisely the artifice allows to go deeper. All good fairy tales use the device of fantasy to speak of the realest of fears and most dire dilemmas. One actor (Majd Mastoura) plays all the men and when he breaks the fourth wall it is most telling and understandable. A bit like Bertrand Bonello’s The Beast, this is the story of a curse, which is both homemade curse and societal.

“I’ll be like Rose in Titanic,” says Olfa to Kaouther, who narrates and sets up what we are about to watch. Hind Sabri, a big star in Egypt and Tunisia, gives insight into her practice and how actors need to protect themselves. We hear from Olfa that as a child she dressed as a boy, cut her hair short, and was “the man of the house” to defend her family. A purposefully stumbling reenactment of her wedding night explains that the blood on the sheets came from her punching the groom, resulting in a bloody nose.

There is a lot of humour in the most unexpected places and the juggling of trauma is both highly unusual and seemingly very effective. Four Daughters addresses topics such as shame surrounding the female body, dynamics of victim blaming, a patriarchal order reinforced by the woman themselves, fears of impurity, lies, exorcism, and the “punishments of the grave,” which include the wearing of “shoes of fire” as though we were in Hans Christian Andersen’s The Red Shoes or the Grimms’ Snow White.

Olfa Hamrouni with Hind Sabri who plays and confronts her in Four Daughters
Olfa Hamrouni with Hind Sabri who plays and confronts her in Four Daughters

The hijab, formerly a garment of protest, forbidden before the revolution, becomes a pivotal object and the first step in radicalising the two absent sisters, who, in 2015 were wanted terrorists shown on TV. They are still imprisoned in Libya to this day.

From Paris, Kaouther Ben Hania joined me on Zoom for an in-depth conversation on Four Daughters.

Anne-Katrin Titze: Hello, good to see you again!

Kaouther Ben Hania: Hi! How are you?

AKT: I’m fine, but I just came from the dentist, so if I speak a little strangely, that’s why.

KBH: That’s okay. I was at the dentist yesterday.

AKT: So we have both clean teeth, that’s always good. First of all congratulations to being Tunisia’s Oscar submission once again and being on the Short List for DOC NYC!

KBH: Thank you! Yeah, it’s great!

AKT: Are you coming to New York?

KBH: Yes, I’m coming next week!

Eya Chikhaoui and Nour Karoui in Four Daughters
Eya Chikhaoui and Nour Karoui in Four Daughters

AKT: Let’s begin with the very beginning! You have very interesting shots at the start. The people are half hidden, it feels a bit as though you were spying on them. It reminded me of Vertigo when Jimmy Stewart at the flower shop is spying on Kim Novak.

KBH: Oh wow, I never thought about this.

AKT: Tell me about the start!

KBH: You are talking about the introduction, the opening scene?

AKT: Yes.

KBH: It was important for me to tell the audience what they will watch, or to start with a contract. It’s mainly to tell that I tell the story of Olfa’s daughters. It was important to say that it’s a movie. It’s a documentary, it’s also a meta-documentary. We see a clapboard at the beginning of a movie and also it’s a curtain opening.

AKT: Theatre!

KBH: Yeah, for the audience to enter into the movie and to be introduced, there is my voice-over, the filmmaker saying it’s a movie about real people but it’s also a reality that doesn’t exist outside this movie. It’s a device and I will explain to you what it is exactly.

Four Daughters poster
Four Daughters poster

AKT: The set is so clearly staged. You have strong colours. Artifice lets you get to the truth?

KBH: Yes, exactly! Inside the artifice we dig for the truth deeply. It was my ambition with this movie to construct something, as I said, that doesn’t exist in reality, but the people we see in the movie, they exist in reality. Even the actors are in the movie as persons saying we are actors, we will act. But they give their point of view, they ask questions as a person.

AKT: The interaction with the actors is telling us so much because the family, they see themselves in the actors. It’s very very interesting mirroring. Did some of this evolve or did you know from the start that this would be your, very interesting, format?

KBH: No, it evolved. In the beginning I thought that I’ll do a simple fly-on-the-wall documentary. I started this project many years ago in 2016 when Olfa was speaking about the story of her daughters on Tunisian TV and radio. She tried to find an ear, to be heard. I heard it on the radio and found the character interesting and the story also. So when I started the idea was to do an observational documentary with Olfa and her two youngest daughters.

Quickly I realised that it doesn’t give me the opportunity to dig deep into the past of this family in an interesting way. To show, or to have access to, all the complexity of this story and the multi-layered levels of it. So little by little I put it aside and was thinking of abandoning this movie because I felt it’s very complicated. Like a minefield because it’s sensitive, it’s about people’s intimate life. So I did The Man Who Sold His Skin. Then I came back to this project. I needed access to the past. I mean, I needed to summon the past.

AKT: Summon is the perfect word here.

KBH: There is a cliché we use on TV, in documentary, which is reenactment, you know, which I hated.

AKT: Yeah, me too.

KBH: So I told myself I maybe hijack this cliché. Because what was important for me was not only to summon the past, but also to question it. Since I know that actors ask a lot of questions about their character, the motivation, I thought that maybe by bringing actors, they will be directed by the real characters and will act with them.

Tayssir Chikhaoui with Eya Chikhaoui
Tayssir Chikhaoui with Eya Chikhaoui

It will also allow actors to ask questions, like Brechtian theatre, you know? Inside the scene going out of the scene, thinking about the scene. So this was an idea that I came up with very late in the process. And the movie became more exciting and also we had financing quickly. Before we couldn’t find money.

AKT: I like the hijacking of these horrible reenactments, which are so unbearable in so many documentaries! Here it becomes thrilling! You were talking about actors’ research - have you seen Todd Haynes’s May December?

KBH: Not yet! It was in Cannes in the same competition as me and when you have a movie in Cannes you can’t see any other movie! But I know what it is about and I’m very curious to see it.

AKT: It’s all fiction, but it is the story of the actor coming to confront the real person she is going to play. It’s a nice overlap with your film. Olfa is quite a storyteller, sometimes you wonder about the truth and where she is going with this. We’re not so sure. And to have her confronted with an actress playing her is brilliant. Especially with one of the topics being inherited trauma. What we keep and what we get from before and what we pass on.

KBH: Yeah exactly. It’s a mother-daughter complicated relationship. And as you said, Olfa is a fascinating character because she’s bigger than life who takes up a lot of space and I was concerned how to portray her in this movie in a fair way, let’s say. Because she can be a loving mother, she can be a horrible mother, she can be everything at the same time.

The Man Who Sold His Skin was Oscar-nominated in 2021
The Man Who Sold His Skin was Oscar-nominated in 2021

When I have a character like this when I’m writing a fiction, in general I divide it in two characters so I can create a kind of conflict or confrontation. I told myself, since I’m using fiction tools, I bring in an actress that is very different from Olfa, very rational, and she will give Olfa a mirror. She will tell her stuff and this will give us more of a kaleidoscopic vision of the character.

AKT: Do you know the short tale by Angela Carter called Traveling Clothes? It is a Cinderella version where the dead mother, who plays the part of fairy godmother here, tells her daughter: “Step into my coffin. I stepped into my mother’s coffin when I was your age.” And the coffin will turn into a coach and horses. So much in your film reminded me of this tale. Because of the coffin scenes and the stepping into all the traps of the past.

KBH: I’m very interested in how we always think that we are better than our mothers and give our children a better education, but sometimes despite us we repeat the same things. Olfa is calling this a malediction. And the actress is telling her that we do this in a natural way. We produce what we received from our mothers to our daughters until we have a generation that says stop.

And I think that your daughters are trying to tell you this. It’s a common thing between people, the transfer of trauma between generations and repeating the same mistakes till a generation says no. This was fascinating for me. I think when Olfa says, It’s a malediction, the right way maybe to formulate it is that it’s a way to defend patriarchy. To transmit to her daughters the patriarchal codes that they should respect so they will be saved in a way.

AKT: There is the line that “the two eldest were devoured by the woolf.”

KBH: I say it.

AKT: Do you have updates on anyone since the film was finished? On Ghofrane and Rahma in jail? And the granddaughter, Fatma, as well?

KBH: Yes, they are still in jail in Libya. When we were at the Cannes Film Festival, at the press conference Olfa asked the Tunisian government to bring them and to trial them in Tunisia, the daughters. And especially so she can get her granddaughter. She grew up in jail, which is horrible for a child. To help her get papers and go to school. The movie was released a month ago in Tunisia, so we doubled the effort to talk with the Tunisian government and to bring them to Tunisia. But it’s still ongoing.

AKT: And the other two, Tayssir and Eya?

Four Daughters is selected for the Short List in the 14th edition of DOC NYC
Four Daughters is selected for the Short List in the 14th edition of DOC NYC

KBH: They are very well. They live in Egypt with their mother. Tayssir is studying to become a nurse and Eya is doing sport coaching. They are fine, they did some festivals, they are traveling next week to Cologne in Germany for another festival.

AKT: Beautiful film and I love how you successfully hijack every cliché that you don’t like about documentaries! Maybe I see you in New York soon!

KBH: Yes, thank you very much, Anne-Katrin! Have a nice night!

Coming up - Kaouther Ben Hania on three natural born storytellers, loving clichés and colours, focusing on the female characters and experimenting with male characters for Four Daughters.

Four Daughters opens in cinemas in the US on Friday, October 27.

DOC NYC's screening of Four Daughters is on Thursday, November 9 at 8:45pm - Village East by Angelika.

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