'Four Daughters' explores themes of femininity under the Islamic State

Film director Kaouther Ben Hania's innovative and unconventional docudrama is part-real, part-fiction. The Tunisian family it depicts is real, as is their pain, and it is scooping up many awards.

A still image from the film 'Four Daughters'
Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A still image from the film 'Four Daughters'

'Four Daughters' explores themes of femininity under the Islamic State

On 17 December 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street-side fruit seller, had his produce confiscated by a municipal inspector. Bouazizi was only selling fruit because he could not get a job. Now, he was unable to do even that.

Desperate, he bought a can of gasoline, poured it over himself, and set himself on fire. He died from his injuries on 4 January 2011. This, in turn, set Tunisia on fire. Protests erupted throughout the country. Then, throughout the Arab world.

Bouazizi’s self-immolation triggered what would soon become known as the ‘Arab Spring’. It toppled Tunisia’s long-serving president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and ushered the Islamist Ennahda movement into government.

Analysts now say it opened the door to extremism. By the middle of 2015, the United Nations estimated that more than 5,500 Tunisians had joined jihadist groups, including Islamic State (IS), in places such as Syria, Iraq, and Libya.

Two joiners were the elder teenage girls of Olfa Rahmouni, a Tunisian mother with four daughters. The family’s story has now been made into a film.

Winning awards

Four Daughters by Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania is already winning awards, having been entered at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival.

Scott Garfitt/ALAMY
Nour Karoui, from left, Ichraq Matar, Hend Sabry, director Kaouther Ben Hania, Olfa Hamrouni and others at the premiere of the film 'Four Daughters' at the 76th International Cannes Film Festival May 19, 2023.

The film seamlessly integrates elements of both documentation and imagination, so it is neither a strict documentary nor a film of fiction. In fact, it epitomises the ‘docu-drama’ genre by blending real-life events with fictional storytelling.

Here, actors play the sisters and mother, but footage of the real Olfa and her two youngest daughters recounts events in their own words and interweaves the storytelling.

Despite its blurred identity, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the United States (responsible for organising and presenting the Oscars) decided to shortlist the film in its Documentary Feature category.

The inclusion of Four Daughters on this prestigious list puts it on the international cinematic map after recent screenings in several German cities.

Put forward at Cannes, it also garnered awards and accolades from elsewhere after support from the Red Sea International Film Festival Fund in Saudi Arabia.

Notably, during its screening at the third edition of the Saudi festival, the film clinched the inaugural Al-Sharq channel award for Best Documentary Film.

Four Daughters is neither a strict documentary nor a film of fiction as it seamlessly fuses documentary with imagination.

Familiar story

Featuring the actress Hend Sabry, the film shows how Olfa discovers in 2014 that her oldest daughter Ghofran, 16, has disappeared to neighbouring Libya to join IS.

Shortly after, Olfa's second eldest daughter Rahma, 15, follows suit. She marries the terrorist suspect and IS leader, Noureddine Shushan, and gives birth to a daughter named Fatima.

After her husband's death in a US air strike in Sabratha, Libya, in 2016, Libyan authorities arrest Rahma and Ghofran, sentencing them to 16 years in prison.

The film shows how Olfa embarks on a struggle to free her daughters and granddaughter, Fatima, 8, who has spent her early years in prison.

The narrative is recognisable. It looks at the religious radicalism that transformed Tunisia into a breeding ground for extremist movements during the Arab Spring era.

This system of radicalisation entices young men and women before dispatching them to conflict zones, termed 'jihadist arenas' in the literature of extremist factions.

Nowadays, it is well known how young people get drawn in, in part because that process has been the subject of many TV series and films over the past decade.

The Flower of Aleppo by Tunisian director Ridha Behi stands out as a notable example.

The film tells the story of how a mother's young son becomes radicalised after a psychological crisis and journeys to Syria. Determined to find him, the mother follows, only to find herself ensnared by a terrorist organisation.

Fresh perspective

The narrative structure of Ben Hania's film may share similarities with Ridha Behi's work, yet Four Daughters introduces a fresh perspective through its distinct approach to content, storytelling, and artistic presentation.

Unlike Behi's portrayal, director Ben Hania refrains from tracing Ghofran and Rahma's path to joining IS. She chooses not to show the perils that the girls encountered, the chaos of battle, or the challenges they faced once they reached Libya.

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A still image from the film 'Four Daughters'

Likewise, there is no exploration of possible remorse or determination to persevere. Instead, Ben Hania's focus is back in Tunisia, with the grieving mother and her remaining daughters, Aya and Taysir, who are still under Olfa's care.

Set largely at their home in the city of Sousse, Ben Hania masterfully intertwines the narrative strands of her film. Ichraq Matar plays Ghofran, and Nour Karoui portrays Rahma.

What follows is the compelling depiction of a family torn apart by the influence of radical political Islam, epitomised by IS.

Visually, the settings are devoid of extravagance, flamboyance, or embellishment. Ben Hania listens to Olfa and her daughters as they reveal all, including the aspects of family life (such as abuse and poverty) that people often hide.

Occasionally, excerpts from the extensive TV coverage at the time are used to help tell the mother's story, thereby enriching the saga.

Avoiding stereotypes

Yet it is clear from the crafting that Ben Hania has no agenda or preconceived ideas. The narrative does not preach, which is commonly seen in other films of this type.

The director deliberately avoids stereotypical portrayals. Rather, she lets the audience gradually immerse themselves in Olfa's story without intruding into it.

Throughout the poignant and emotionally charged conversations, we witness Olfa, her daughters, and the three actresses all addressing the director by name as they request adjustments or offer suggestions.

This creates a unique and uncommon directing experience, but it works well, seamlessly merging the imaginary with the real. As such, Ben Hania describes Four Daughters as a "deeply enriching human experience".

Had it not been for Ben Hania's daring and unconventional approach, Four Daughters would be just another entry in a series of films addressing religious extremism.

Yet this incorporates bold and expressive discussions on themes such as the body, sexuality, femininity, male dominance, and religious perspectives as seen through the eyes of Olfa and her daughters.

Director Kaouther Ben Hania deliberately avoids stereotypical portrayals. Rather, she lets the audience gradually immerse themselves in Olfa's story.

Pace and depth

Ben Hania adeptly manages the film's pace, seamlessly transitioning between documentary and narrative styles as needed.

When certain scenes call for emotional depth and performance, she enlists the talents of actors like Sabry and Mastoura, the latter playing multiple male roles.

Through clever editing, the film segues from the real to the imagined. The result is a cohesive blend of styles and remarkable harmony among the four girls depicted in the film: Aya and Taysir as themselves, alongside the actresses embodying Ghofran and Rahma.

Their sibling bond seems authentic as they engage in playful discussions, dance, sing, cry, get angry, and even fight—everything sisters would do in real life.

These scenes are endearing, captivating, and poignant. They offer a glimpse into a past that ended in tragedy.

Vortex of violence

It would have been easy for Ben Hania, in empathy with the mother, to have depicted her as a victim of her circumstances. Yet she chooses not to. Victim she may be, but Olfa also bears responsibility for her daughters' choices.

Olfa bravely admits on camera that she made mistakes in raising her daughters and that she was too harsh and violent with them. She says she did this to instil in them a strength of personality and help them confront an unforgiving society.

However, she laments that this strength was ultimately turned against her, recalling the Arabic verse: "I taught him archery, and when his forearm grew stronger, he shot me." It illustrates her sense of betrayal by her two daughters.

Olfa's harsh treatment of her daughters stems from her own experiences and upbringing in a male-dominated society where outdated customs and traditions view women as inferior. 

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A still image from the film 'Four Daughters'

She recalls her own domineering father who oppressed and harassed both her and her sister. Later, her husband also subjected her to abuse and eventually divorced her, walking out on her and the four girls.

To support the family, Olfa worked as a maid in a household in Libya. She remarried, but her second husband, a convicted murderer, continued the cycle of abuse and humiliation. Hit attention turned to her young daughters in her absence.

Left in Libya

It helps explain why teenagers Ghofran and Rahma decided to join IS at the age of 16 and 15, respectively. It was not rooted in a deep understanding of its principles and methods. They were unable to fully discern right from wrong.

Joining IS served as an escape from a dysfunctional family, from oppressive circumstances, and from the cycle of deprivation and poverty.

Vulnerable and impressionable due to their youth, they became easy targets for manipulation by extremist groups who prey on the fragile and curious.

When Ennahda gained power and influence across various sectors of Tunisian society, there was a proliferation of extremist Islamic activities.

In public spaces, under security supervision, preaching tents were set up. Ghofran became enamoured and ensnared by one of the sheikhs in these tents.

Both she and Rahma remain in prison, as does Fatima, Olfa's granddaughter. Now aged eight, she knows of no other life than that she leads behind bars.

Unlike the sheikh's stories, the story of Olfa and her daughters has no discernible ending or conclusion. Instead, her tragedy simply continues.

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