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Four Daughters
Image: Cannes

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Cannes 2023: Four Daughters: A Family’s Journey From Goth to Niqab

Four Daughters Review

It is a very French expression  – coup de cœur. At Cannes, one sees all kinds of films: boring, long, average, amazing, masterpieces…But the literal translation of a coup de cœur is a film that captures your heart. It may not necessarily win prizes, but it touches the audience, emotionally, psychologically, in ways that other technically better films do not. Simply put, it is a film that every critic and every audience member loves, even it is not the rationally best film. In 2016 (the last Cannes edition I attended before this one), that film was Toni Erdmann. This year, it appears to be a draw between Le Regne Animal (The Animal Kingdom, which I have not seen) and Les Filles d’OIfa (Four Daughters).

Olfa Hamrouni is a real-life middle-aged Tunisian cleaning lady, unhappily married, happily-then-unhappily remarried who has, or at least had, four teenage daughters. The reason janitor Olfa Hamrouni is at Cannes this year is that she caught the attention of filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania when she appeared on Tunisian news and TV, imploring the authorities there to repatriate her two elder daughters Ghofrane and Rahma, both imprisoned in Libya after a US airstrike on an Islamic State (Daesh) compound. Ghofrane and Rahma joined Islamic State circa 2015 on what appears to have been a teenage whim directed at their overbearing but hapless mother Olfa. 

The documentary-drama follows the transformation of Ghofrane and Rahma from goth-wearing, anarchist freaks to niqab-wearing fanatics – partly due to the socio-political aftereffects of the Tunisian revolution of 2011  (the fall of long-serving Tunisian president Ben Ali freeing the space for the rise of Islamic State organisations), partly due to teenage rebellion against their authoritarian mother Olfa. 

The film is an amalgam of documentary footage and rehearsals for a fictional fiction film – there is no fiction film, however professional actresses assume the roles of the two imprisoned sisters and prominent Tunisian actress Hind Sabri is recruited as Olfa’s stand-in during the re-enactment of the more harrowing scenes.  Director Ben Hania settled on this mixtures of genres after an unsuccessful attempt at pure documentary which was to revolve around the absence of the two older sisters. The participation of the professional actresses is intended as a therapeutic mirror directed at the torn-apart family, the director intentionally provoking heart-wrenching confrontations between the girls and their mother, who the audience learns is very far from being an unambiguously grieving, dedicated mother. Olfa has a somewhat violent, abusive temperament which she readily acknowledges and justifies as a survival skill in patriarchal Tunisia. It is a familiar trope of many a controlling parent: “It is all for the sake of the children’s good”.  

Four Daughters
Image: Cannes

Islamic state is Olfa’s comeuppance and it is a formidable rival – Four Daughters does a superb job of shining a light on the underlying reasons which likely drove a large contingent of IS recruits. Tyrannical parents, family abuse and teenage confusion are all addressed in this de facto art therapy exercise. Olfa is frequently confronted by the actress impersonating her and the director herself when she expresses particularly retrograde views, with the clear goal of prompting a reckoning and triggering the realisation of why exactly the girls rebelled. 

Throughout the film runs an overtly feminist voice (there is only one male actor for all the male roles) and the matriarchal power of Olfa is challenged by the two younger girls Eya and Tayssir, who in their own words, narrowly escaped joining IS. They seem confident in their newfound freedom and openly dethrone Olfa and confront her certainties. This family therapy is at times laughter-provoking, at others brutally distressing. These are real people grasping for a catharsis in front of the filmmaker’s benevolent gaze and with all her contradictions and insecurities, Olfa manages to capture viewers’ hearts. The director herself states that the two younger, freedom-loving, tank-top clad daughters who openly address past traumas and lovingly challenge their mother’s authority are the only hope for the family’s and Tunisia’s future. 

No doubt the Tunisian mother-daughter trio are the most touching characters in this year’s competition (yes, they have the advantage of being real) and Four Daughters might just walk away with the coup de coeur award. 

Zornitsa Staneva

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