Heart-wrenching tale made digestible with dark humour
Kaouther Ben Hania’s experimental storytelling and implementation of important topics always make her films an interesting watch. Viewers felt the same way as everyone flocked to get a glimpse of Four Daughters (Les Filles d’Olfa) making Tunisia proud in the main competition of 2023 Cannes Film Festival. Four Daughters makes use of the meta trope to give us a film within a film, a documentary of sorts based on true events while incorporating the actual people involved as actors in the film.
Ben Hania wants to make a film on Olfa and her four daughters out of which two are devoured by “wolves” after their community targeted women who don’t wear hijabs. Olfa and her youngest two daughters play themselves, with Ben Hania bringing in an actress to play Olfa in painful scenes. Two young actresses are also brought in to play the role of the older missing daughters — Ghofrane and Rahma.
Despite the premise being sad, Olfa considers herself as Rose from Titanic, telling her story while her daughters are excited to meet their fake sisters. Humour, playful bonding and sarcasm cover up the underlying pain that the women have faced. Four Daughters puts together bits and pieces of the fake film, its bloopers, behind the scenes and interviews to give us a cohesive tale of what really happened to Olfa and her daughters while also giving us a fun, relatable side.
Viewers never see the final output of the fake film, yet they easily follow the story of the women showcasing just how adaptive storytelling can be. In this novel format, Ben Hania laces the painful reality with humour to make it digestible, not allowing viewers to shy away from being educated about the horrors that women go through in Tunisia.
The absurdity of the fake scenes, the nonchalant explanation of the painful experiences of the women to the production gives us another aspect of the same story. Hilarious instances are used to tell an actually sad story of a woman whose husband denied her love, a woman who had to take care of her daughters alone and live through two of them going missing.
Even the real daughters teaching the male actor how to be like their horrible father has a tinge of comedic elements as they argue of not wanting to swear. But in the interviews, it shows how much it hurts the family even though they have moved on and can now look at it lightly. This is even evident when Olfa and her two daughters bond with the actors who try to understand the motive for their characters. This is why Four Daughters can be considered a masterclass on how to get a good cast for one’s film, to understand how filmmaking is done, what the actors have to go through to embody their roles and the difficulties of bringing a story to life.
It even questions the oppressive ideas of why a woman’s body belongs to a husband and to society but not to themselves, why mothers give tough love as a way to protect their daughters from the sinful world. Despite laughing and finding it hilarious that the actors have to portray familial misunderstandings, it questions this underlying idea of what women are allowed or not allowed.
This leads to buried emotions coming out as the third daughter starts voicing all the ways her mother hurt her in a funny manner and they even acknowledge it lightly. The film is a way for the daughters to tell the mother what happened, finally making her believe it as in the past she never did. While it makes us wonder if these moments are scripted, improvised in rehearsal or on the spot decisions, it is still bittersweet to know that it took so long for them to be honest with each other. But it shows how parents can sometimes forget that they hurt their children which scars them for long even when disciplining them for good. It can lead to dangerous consequences as seen in the case of Rahma and Ghofrane.
The arguments are so real, one is not sure if they are acting or if it’s a behind the scenes argument between the actors and Olfa. Ben Hania keeps pushing the boundaries and the pay off is worth it. Even if a viewer has no context, does not read the summary beforehand, the director makes clear her purpose of the documentary when she drops the bomb (no pun intended). And while she covers her bases it just makes us want to know more — what happened to the real Rahma and Ghofrane and Googling to jaw-dropping revelations.
Four Daughters runs two parallel stories with viewers wishing that they get a light hearted tale of the women bonding while filming the documentary. But we also never forget the missing daughters and what happened to them. Both stay in the mind in tangent as we get characters who are all flawed yet loveable, have sad yet happy memories and we wonder how the same decisions can take people down different paths. Despite making a non-fiction documentary, Kaouther Ben Hania proves to be a strong competition to her peers in the main section of Cannes 2023.
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Verdict - 9/10