2023 was a year of great documentaries. While it stands as its own medium of film entirely, in a comparative sense, it rose above any other cinematic genre of the year thanks to titles like Menus Plaisir — Les Troisgros, A Still Small Voice, Subject, The Mission, Israelism, Carpet Cowboys, Holy Frit, and many more. Four Daughters was undeniably one of the most emotionally powerful and aesthetically provocative of the bunch, though. It was simply one of the best films of 2023.
Four Daughters explores the life of one Tunisian family through interviews and reenactments, keeping things contained largely within one building. And yet, it’s extraordinarily dynamic due to director Kaouther Ben Hania‘s fluid and hypnotic methods, unbelievably intimate cinematography from Farouk Laâridh, and the rich editing of Qutaiba Barhamji. A tragedy took two of Olfa Hamrouni’s daughters away from her and her family. With them absent, Ben Hania casts two actors to portray them alongside Olfa and her other two daughters, Eya and Tayssir, to reenact the events leading up to and after the daughters’ disappearance. An actor (the stunning Hind Sabri) is cast to take Olfa’s part when things become too traumatic to reenact.
The result is a haunting chamber drama, an exorcism of the past’s ghosts. At the center of it all is this complicated, beautiful family and their resilience, stubbornness, pain, forgiveness, and all those other human emotions that fiction strives to replicate. Feeling pours out of this film, which was one of the best of 2023 and will surely get more theatrical releases in the lead-up to the Academy Awards, where it has been easily shortlisted for Best Documentary Feature. We spoke with Kaouther Ben Hania (who also directed the Oscar-nominated film, The Man Who Sold His Skin) about Four Daughters; read on or watch the video interview above.
Four Daughters from 2016 to Now
MovieWeb: I understand you first heard about this family and their travails in 2016. Did you approach them then to act out their story on film, or how did this develop?
Kaouther Ben Hania: So it took me time to figure out how I wanted to tell the story, because when I contacted them, it was in 2016 when the mother started talking about her story in the news on TV, and I’d heard about it. So, in the beginning, I was doing a fly on the wall documentary. It gives me the possibility to be very close to them, to spend a lot of time with them. But quickly, I understood that it’s not the right way to tell the story. And maybe it’s a very complicated story and I don’t have big enough shoulders to tell it. So I quit the film and I did The Man Who Sold His Skin.
Kaouther Ben Hania: And after The Man Who Sold His Skin, I was thinking, ‘Maybe I rethink all of this project and tell it in another way.’ But during all those years, I was sharing with them all my doubts and all my evolution. You know, they were my partners, because it’s their story. I was the one telling their stories, so when I felt that maybe I needed to dig deep in their past — how do you bring the past to life in documentaries? Through reenactment.
But since I don’t like reenactments, I thought that maybe I have to hijack this cliché and use it in another way. So, I was sharing all this with Olfa and her daughters, and they were really happy about the idea of actors, because they felt that what I was filming before was not alive enough. They weren’t challenged, you know? So they needed people to have dialogue with. The idea of bringing actors was very exciting for them.
MW: So you set up these scenarios where Olfa and her daughters essentially direct these actors to recreate their past. We don’t see you and rarely hear you in the film, but we see these women sort of orchestrating the reenactments. Did it ever feel like you were giving away the reins as director? And did that ever worry you?
Kaouther Ben Hania: It’s true and not true. I was, like what you said, giving away the reins. For me, the real characters would direct the actors. So they are in a way telling them what to do. What I love in general with documentary is that I’m the first audience of my movie. It’s not like fiction, where it’s my ideas, my scene, and I’m not surprised by its execution. So here I’m surprised, but at the same time, I’m the director. So I was there to guide and to advise, but I wanted to give them this safe space where they can talk, where they can exchange, so it was letting go of the control but being in control at the same time.
Kaouther Ben Hania: And this needs a lot of trust between me and them, and also between the actors and the character. So, for me, the main idea was to make, as I said, a safe space for everybody, to have a very small crew, a feminine crew, so we can trust each other and feel safe while doing this, shooting this movie.
Putting the Art in Cathartic
MW: Throughout Four Daughters, you have these women coming to terms with some of the awful things that have been done to them, but also some of their behavior and their past decisions. It makes the reenactments extremely powerful, and Olfa is especially confronted with some really harsh truths from her daughters and from the actors. Did it surprise you how vulnerable they were and do you feel like they learned from doing this?
Kaouther Ben Hania: Yeah, sure. Even for me, it was very surprising. I mean, I knew that the movie will be introspective and will be, not art therapy but introspective, especially for Olfa. And what was interesting was also that the two daughters, maybe for the first time in their life, had the opportunity to tell stuff to their mother, because we were there, because I was like encouraging them to express themselves and to say stuff. So the movie was, I think, a turning point for Olfa and her daughters and even in their relationship.
Kaouther Ben Hania: When we started, even before, especially Eya, the oldest one, they were fighting all the time, and we see them in the movie kissing toward the end of the shooting, you know? So I think it was really fascinating to see the evolution of their relationship, especially Olfa’s evolution of realizing things, realizing what she did and why she did it. Understanding the mechanism of her behavior was such a revelation for her and also for her daughters.
MW: You get into some very heavy territory here. Abuse, rape, ISIS and religious extremism, mental institutions, drug use, etc. Did you ever feel like you were going too far? There’s one powerful scene where an actor playing the step-father had to stop filming and leave. Did that happen other times?
Kaouther Ben Hania: There were moments like this. As I said, I was the one in control, so I could say, “No, we don’t need this, maybe it can be harmful to go there.” Especially for that scene, all of us were scared. I told Eya, “This is your step-father, or your mother’s boyfriend, tell him whatever you want.” So I didn’t know what she would tell him exactly. I mean, I knew about the history, since she had the therapy and we had the therapy with the mother. And when the actor, who didn’t know anything about this, wanted to step out of the scene, she was the one reassuring us. I mean, she was the one talking about her trauma, but also the one telling us, “It’s okay, I’ve been through this.”
And they want to tell this scene. So it’s something like, I don’t trust only my judgment. I especially trust the character, since it’s their story, and if they assist and they want to tell something, and it’s important for them, even if I’m scared, I need to hear it and understand that.
MW: It’s one of the year’s best scenes. Eya could be a great actor. A lot of Four Daughters intersects with the cultural and political upheavals of Tunisia. There’s a big election coming up this year (and coincidentally, someone else named Olfa is running). There have been crackdowns on journalists. People are afraid. What do you make of the situation there, and will you keep making films in Tunisia?
Kaouther Ben Hania: I think that there is a stepping back from freedom of speech and democracy. And this is very sad. I think I’ll always do movies in Tunisia. I’ll fight for it. Because what we experienced in the last 11 or 12 years was freedom of speech, democracy, and when you have those things, you don’t accept oppression. You know, there was a revolution. And so I think it’s just a very sad chapter, and I hope that it will end. But at the same time, the state of democracy all over the world is very critical. Populism and far-right wings are winning everywhere. It’s a very sad situation all over the world. So I think Tunisia is not like an insulated oasis. So we’ll see.
We hope that Kaouther Ben Hania is free to make whatever she wants in Tunisia, because she’s a very special director, and this is an immensely special film. From Kino Lorber, you can find out more about Four Daughters here.