A clapperboard snaps shut in frame and the camera starts rolling. You can cut the tension with a knife as four young women and an older one perch on a sofa. The opening of this daringly experimental and deep-feeling docudrama gives us Tunisian matriarch Olfa and her four daughters as they prepare to dive into their painful past and tell a story filled with twists, joys and sorrows. ‘I feel like Rose in the film Titanic,’ she jokes, bracing herself for the torrent of painful memories ready to be exhumed.
But then director Kaouther Ben Hania unleashes her first surprise: two of the girls are not Olfa’s daughters. Instead, they’re actresses hired to stand in for Rahma and Ghofane, the two eldest girls whose absence is initially left unexplained. Slowly, like steam building in a pressure cooker, it becomes the urgent puzzle that the film must solve.
With shades of Kiarostami’s Close-Up, Ben Hania never lets us forget we’re navigating a facsimile of real events from which emotional truths will emerge – a deconstruction of acting and storytelling that’s laid bare whenever a boom mic drifts into frame. She stitches together talking-head interviews, dramatic reconstructions, and even the filmed rehearsals of those reconstructions. They spiral wildly out of control as when the real Olfa takes her emotions out on the actor standing in for her ex-husband, pummelling the poor man as he cowers in the corner. Her daughters choke back the laughter.
But those feelings soon become overwhelming and an actress (Egyptian-Tunisian star Hend Sabry) is hired to stand in for the fiery matriarch. Occasionally, the pair bicker about their differing intrepretations of scenes/incidents and Sabry gets thespy about motivation. The two sets of daughters – real and thespian – also bond, as the actresses glean information about their characters. Soon, they feel like part of the family too.
It takes the building blocks of filmmaking and constructs something cathartic, affecting and original
This is the best kind of meta doc: one where the artifice works to carry us along on the family’s journey, rather than overwhelm us with trickery. Four Daughters contains multitudes, too: it’s about young womanhood, protective mums, radicalisation, toxic patriarchies and the damaged wreaked by godawful men – all with a post-Arab Spring political edge.
‘It’s going to reopen old wounds,’ Olfa notes early on – and it really does. But Four Daughters delivers healing, too. Like a kind of cinematic Lego set, Ben Hania takes the building blocks of filmmaking and constructs from them something cathartic, affecting and original.
Four Daughters premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival.