Four Daughters (Arabic: بنات ألفة, French: Les Filles d’Olfa) is a captivating Arabic-language documentary that takes viewers on an extraordinary journey. Directed by the talented Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania, the film explores the heartbreaking true story of a mother’s struggle to come to terms with her two daughters’ decision to join the Islamic State (IS) group.
by Diane Pernet
From the very beginning, Four Daughters grabs the audience’s attention with its thought-provoking premise. How do two seemingly ordinary teenage girls transform from typical adolescents, engaging in teenage rebellion like kissing boys and dyeing their hair blue, to radicalized individuals pledging allegiance to a violent extremist organization? Ben Hania masterfully unveils this story through a unique film mechanism that blends reality and fiction.
The director ingeniously incorporates both the real-life mother and her two younger daughters into the narrative. This interplay between the actual family members and a well-known Egyptian Tunisian actress portraying the mother creates a dynamic and engaging dynamic. The constant conversations between the real mother and the actress playing her add an extra layer of authenticity and emotional depth to the film.
In an innovative move, younger actresses are brought in to portray the older teenage daughters who made the fateful decision to join ISIS. This artistic choice, although somewhat reminiscent of Brechtian techniques, effectively portrays the ruptured nature of the family and mirrors the brokenness caused by the daughters’ radicalization. While such a framing device could risk becoming an indulgent artistic exercise, Ben Hania skillfully employs it to explore profound questions of responsibility and guilt.
The film delves into the complexities of the mother’s emotions, grappling with her feelings of overprotectiveness and the weight of responsibility she bears for her daughters’ choices. Through this narrative approach, Four Daughters shines a spotlight on the mother’s internal struggle, posing challenging questions about where her ultimate responsibility lies.
It is worth noting that the use of such narrative devices is more common in nonfiction filmmaking, making their inclusion in a conventional narrative film all the more intriguing. Ben Hania‘s decision to employ these techniques successfully enhances the storytelling, allowing the audience to delve deeper into the intricate layers of this family’s harrowing experience.
Four Daughters stands out among the documentary offerings at the 76th Cannes Film Festival. Although it is premature to make broad statements about the state of documentary cinema at Cannes, it is commendable that the festival has evolved to showcase a diverse range of documentaries. The inclusion of films exploring different formal approaches, both in competition and out of competition, is a significant step forward for the genre.
Furthermore, the recent recognition of documentaries as winners at major film festivals like Berlin and Venice reflects the growing prominence and acceptance of nonfiction storytelling. Four Daughters stands as a testament to the power of documentary storytelling.