Four Daughters

M, 100 minutes

3 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

Among a group of terrorists arrested in Libya in 2016 were two young Tunisian sisters who remain in prison, sentenced recently to even more time behind bars. One of them has a child who was conceived when the girls joined Islamic State. This docudrama is their story, as it is told by their grieving mother and two younger sisters back home.

It is deftly constructed, breaking down the fourth wall in its performed scenes with discussions between the actors and the real characters they play. In the interviews with the main characters, mother Olfa Hamrouni and daughters Eya and Tayssir Chikhaoui, their recollections to camera are combined with scenes with the actors (Nour Karoui and Ichrak Matar) who play the parts of Rahma and Ghofrane, respectively. On occasion, when Olfa steps away from the frame during moments that she finds too traumatic, actress Hind Sabri plays her part.

In a comic touch, Majd Mastoura plays the parts of all the men. These include Olfa’s no-good husband and the girls’ father, a convicted murderer whom Olfa harbours and shares a bed with, and a police officer whom Olfa begs protect her remaining daughters.

It will occupy a niche, with its backstory to two young Tunisian sisters who joined IS

The film is not an easy watch, but with its awards and prestigious nominations, it will occupy a niche with its backstory to women who joined IS.

Writer-director Kaouther Ben Hania, a Tunisian filmmaker who trained at La Femis in Paris, spends a lot of time, too long really, in the world of the girls. They are sweet and lovely, but the screen time spent on what they thought and how they behaved did not provide much insight. The girls’ goth phase and the ‘buried alive’ games were creepy.

Even more disturbing, but important to know, was the influence the strange life with their mother had on their development. Olfa may fantasise about a parallel between herself and Rose in Titanic, but there is a harshness behind that friendly face with a pleasant smile. In her rage when returning from cleaning work in Libya, she thought little of battering the recalcitrant Ghofrane with a bent gas hose after finding the girl wearing goth make-up, and her hair cut in a bob and dyed blue at the ends.

The daughters were the result of a loveless marriage, so it seems Olfa cannot tolerate them sharing a kiss with a young man when she endured a husband who never kissed her. The early scenes where she rejected his advances after their wedding are as comical as they are startling. The stains on the sheets for public display were from the cuts and scratches that she had inflicted on the new groom.

Is it representative of the society, or the product of a conflicted and fatherless household?

At Olfa’s place, wearing the hijab or niqab was a demonstration of rebellion. Younger daughters Eya and Tayssir adopted the hijab at ages eight and ten. At another level it offered the means to escape from their own bodies, imbued with shame, obscenity and evil by their own mother.

We hear in the discussions the women reflecting on how the hijab and niqab grew more common under the influence of Islamists. The sisters discuss how they ought to be worn, to look either alluring with the eye-holes at an angle, or as a regulation blackboard without protrusion as the wearer marched around with big strides. Eventually, even Olfa was forced by her daughters to wear it, despite objecting that she needed to wear pants for her job as a cleaner. The film doesn’t go wide, so it’s never quite clear if the girls’ decision is representative of the society, or the product of a conflicted and fatherless household.

Without education, these four daughters seemed destined to become cleaning ladies too. Running away may have been for Rahma and Ghofrane some crazy act of self-determination. We won’t know until they are released from Jdaida Prison. If ever. Meantime, we are invited to contemplate the blank (defiant?) expression of Ghofrane’s little daughter who is glimpsed seated between her mother and aunt who are in full niqab. Will she too be ‘devoured by the wolf’?

First published in the Canberra Times on 3 March 2024. Also published by Rotten Tomatoes