Four Daughters: the facts and fictions of a Tunisian family’s history blur in this fascinating hybrid documentary

Kaouther Ben Hania’s docudrama sees a mix of actors and real members of a Tunisian family reenact painful events that preceded two elder daughters leaving to join ISIS.

Eya Chikhaoui, Nour Karoui, Ichrak Matar and Tayssir Chikhaoui in Four Daughters (2024)

Elegantly staged and shot as a minimalist chamber piece, hybrid documentary Four Daughters is a Brechtian exercise, but not a merely formal one; it uses self-reflexive performance to unearth family history and exorcise shared pain. At the centre of Kaouther Ben Hania’s film is a middle-aged Tunisian woman, Olfa Hamrouni, mother to four adult daughters – Eya, Tayssir, Rahma and Ghofrane. The latter two are played in their absence by actors: we hear at the start that they have disappeared. Four Daughter explores the causes of their disappearance, re-enacting the bitter history of these five women.

Early on, Ben Hania foregrounds the nervous thrill of participating in the dramatisation of one’s own life. Olfa interacts with Hend Sabri, the well-known screen performer who will play her, but also ends up directing some scenes; she herself plays the older sister who intervened brutally in young Olfa’s wedding night. In a comically knowing moment, Olfa, played by Sabri, watches an old film with her husband, who denounces an actress on TV as “a total slut”; the actress is Sabri herself. There are even moments of joy, when Eya and Tayssir first meet the women playing their sisters, and when all four lounge around in relaxed intimacy, reliving a lost pre-crisis past.

The sisters and their mother joke together, making light of her strictness, but we discover that Olfa, though loving and protective, has also been moralistic, repressive of her daughters’ individuality and sexuality, sometimes downright violent towards them.

The girls eventually refuse to be the model daughters that Olfa expects: the older two experiment with traditional teen-rebellion styles, then opt for a more radical means of escape, embracing Islamic fundamentalism and eventually taking a decisive step that breaks up the family altogether.

Though Four Daughters is itself non-judgemental, Olfa is judged by her daughters; by Sabri, who occasionally offers stern criticisms (“You are obsessed with sin”); and above all, by herself.

What emerges from this collective investigation is not only an understanding of the role of misogyny in North African culture (the subject of Ben Hania’s 2017 fiction feature Beauty and the Dogs) but, the way that women are taught to be complicit with it over generations: “I repeated everything that my mother did to me,” Olfa admits. 

The film ends with a freeze-frame of a fifth girl, representing the next generation – her challenging gaze leaving us to hope that Olfa is wrong when she ruefully predicts, “The curse will continue.”

 ► Four Daughters is in UK cinemas from 1 March.