“A Journey That Allowed Us to Harness the Power of Storytelling”: Kaouther Ben Hania on her Cannes-winning Four Daughters
Co-winner of the Cannes 2023 Golden Eye, Kaouther Ben Hania’s (Zaineb Hates the Snow, Beauty and the Dogs) Four Daughters is both compellingly crafted and deeply disturbing. The “fictional documentary” looks back on an infamous, winding and tumultuous Tunisian saga involving five women: the titular quartet of older siblings Ghofrane and Rahma and youngest Eya and Tayssir, along with their mother Olfa Hamrouni. The younger daughters appear as themselves, and the film features two actors taking on the roles of the oldest, a necessity since Ghofrane and Rahma can’t “play” themselves, having “disappeared” back in 2015 at the tender ages of 16 and 15, respectively. Then there is veteran Tunisian-Egyptian actor Hend Sabri (Noura’s Dream), who plays Olfa when events get too traumatic to recount, a circumstance that happens often when such strong-willed real-life protagonists—especially the domineering Olfa—are as messy and complicated as the stories they tell to us, as well as themselves.
Soon after the film’s TIFF premiere (and just prior to its debut at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, where I saw it as part of my Critics Jury duty), Filmmaker reached out to the Tunisian writer-director to learn all about this most unexpected followup to her Oscar-nominated, Monica Bellucci-starring The Man Who Sold His Skin. Four Daughters is released today by Kino Lorber.
Filmmaker: By the time you reached out to Olfa and her daughters, they’d already become media figures and Olfa had crafted a public persona. So, in order to break through this calculated “grieving mother” invention you decided, according to the press notes, to “make a documentary on the preparation for a fake fiction that would never see the light of day.” Could you clarify this a bit? Were you transparent with Olfa that the fiction was indeed “fake”? Or did she think you would eventually craft a narrative based on her life (as opposed to a “fictional documentary”)?
Ben Hania: I was always transparent with Olfa and her two youngest daughters throughout the entire filmmaking process. When I embarked on this project back in 2016, my initial idea was to create a fly-on-the-wall documentary, capturing candid moments of Olfa and her two daughters in their daily lives at home. However, as I delved deeper into Olfa’s story, it became apparent that her narrative was incredibly multilayered, spanning across time and emotions. I realized that a traditional documentary approach might not do justice to the complexity of her experiences.
It was at this juncture that I came up with the idea of introducing actors into the film. This decision allowed us to not only summon the family’s past but also to reflect upon it in a more profound and evocative manner. I discussed this concept openly with Olfa, Eya and Tayssir, explaining that they would play a pivotal role in the process. They would be responsible for directing the actors, sharing their memories, guiding them through the scenes and providing answers to their questions. In fact, it was Olfa who gave me the idea to hire Hend Sabry (the actress playing her double).
To make this approach work effectively, it was imperative that Olfa and her daughters understood the filmmaking device and the creative process involved. Without this understanding, we couldn’t have achieved the depth and authenticity that the project aimed to capture. Olfa and her daughters are naturally gifted storytellers, and their involvement in shaping the narrative was essential in bringing out the emotional truth that underpinned their lives.
In essence, our collaborative effort was built on transparency, mutual understanding and a shared commitment to exploring the intricacies of Olfa’s life and family history in a way that went beyond traditional documentary conventions. It was a journey that allowed us to harness the power of storytelling, both real and fictional, to convey the emotional complexity of their experiences.
Filmmaker: At one point during a difficult scene with the youngest daughters, Eya and Tayssir, your male actor (Majd Mastoura) refuses to continue, which made me wonder if you hired an on-set therapist to ensure the psychological safety of actors, crew and even yourself. I know Eya and Tayssir at least worked with psychologists prior to production, but what precautions were taken for everyone throughout the actual shoot?
Ben Hania: When I first met the family in 2016, Eya and Tayssir had recently returned home from the juvenile center that plays a significant role in the latter part of the movie. At that time, the government had appointed a psychoanalyst to work with them, but it became apparent that the rapport wasn’t ideal. It was clear to me that they needed a better support system, not only for the girls but also for their mother Olfa.
As the shooting of the documentary didn’t begin until 2021, there was a significant period of time during which Olfa, Eya and Tayssir made remarkable progress in dealing with their past traumas. They were much better equipped to share their story when we started filming.
In the specific scene that you mentioned, where the actor Majd Mastoura refused to continue, it’s important to note that he wasn’t aware of the extensive therapy that Eya and Tayssir had undergone in the past. His confusion and reluctance are entirely understandable, because he approached his role as an actor, not as a psychoanalyst. When confronted with the emotional weight of the confessions and the complexity of the family’s history, he understandably felt ill-equipped to handle such intense and deeply personal revelations.
Understanding the sensitivity of the topics we would be exploring during the shoot, I was committed to creating a safe and supportive space on set—not just for Olfa and her daughters, but for every member of the crew. Film sets can sometimes be intense environments with egos, tensions and judgments, and I wanted to mitigate those challenges. To achieve this, I minimized the size of the crew and prioritized a majority female crew, which fostered a more inclusive and empathetic atmosphere.
In addition to these measures, we held numerous pre-shooting meetings to discuss and establish guidelines for maintaining a safe space for everyone involved. We collectively crafted a code of conduct or charter that allowed each crew member to contribute their thoughts on how to create a nurturing environment. This ensured that everyone’s needs and concerns were considered, helping to maintain a harmonious and empathetic atmosphere throughout the production.
Filmmaker: How much say did all the participants have in the final cut, and how do they all feel about it now? Did you give more weight to the opinions and concerns of Eya and Tayssir than to those of Olfa?
Ben Hania: Initially, I did propose to Olfa and her daughters that they take part in the editing process, as I believed it was their right to contribute to the shaping of their own narrative. However, to my surprise, they declined this opportunity. They explained that if they were to participate in editing, it could result in three distinct versions of the film: one to align with Tayssir’s perspective, another to suit Eya’s and yet another to satisfy Olfa. They simply told me that they trust me. This decision reflected their immense trust in me as the filmmaker, and it also demonstrated their commitment to allowing the story to unfold as authentically as possible.
As you can imagine, I was quite nervous when they finally saw the completed film. Their reactions, however, were beyond my expectations. They were genuinely happy with the way their voices were portrayed in the film. Their response was an affirmation that we had succeeded in capturing the essence of their experiences and emotions.
Our journey continued when we attended the Cannes Film Festival together. It was a profoundly beautiful and emotional moment for all of us. The film’s reception at such a prestigious event and worldwide platform, combined with their courageous and unfiltered storytelling, left a lasting impact. Their willingness to share their experiences openly and honestly, even when it was uncomfortable or painful, was truly phenomenal. It was a testament to their resilience and the power of their voices in bringing their story to the world.
Filmmaker: Ironically, the Tunisian Revolution in 2011 was hailed as a victory for democracy (at least in the West), but it likewise paved the way for Islamic extremism in the country—and thus the furtherance of religion as a tool of the patriarchy. Indeed, Olfa’s eldest daughers, Ghofrane and Rahma, even use Islam to dominate their own pious and domineering mother. Do you think it’s even possible to separate religion from patriarchy in Tunisia (or anywhere for that matter)? What segments of society have actually benefited most since the ousting of Ben Ali?
Ben Hania: While the path to change is challenging, it’s important to acknowledge that the Tunisian Revolution did bring about significant positive changes, including greater freedom of speech and expression. This freedom allowed filmmakers and artists like myself to explore and depict complex societal issues, including those related to gender dynamics and religion, through our work. It’s crucial to recognize that revolutions are complex processes, and their aftermath often involves periods of turmoil and societal introspection.
After the Tunisian Revolution, Ennahda, an Islamist party, initially won elections due to their past persecution under dictatorship. However, their subsequent governance led to public dissatisfaction, resulting in their loss in the following elections. This process exemplifies the essence of democracy, where voters hold elected officials accountable.
In reflecting on the aftermath of the revolution, the words of Antonio Gramsci are indeed relevant: “The old world is dying, and the new world struggles to be born: now is the time of monsters.” It’s a period of upheaval and transformation, where society confronts its hidden “demons” and attempts to forge a more just and equitable future.
Personally, I believe that the Tunisian Revolution was a vital step towards democracy and freedom of speech, despite the complexities that followed. It provided a platform for artists and activists to address critical issues, including the interplay between religion and patriarchy, and it serves as a reminder that the struggle for societal change is an ongoing and vital endeavor.
Filmmaker: I’m guessing your protagonists are hoping that the film might somehow serve to eventually reunite them with Ghofrane and Rahma. Are you likewise hoping it serves this purpose? Are you at ease with this film being both a work of cinematic nonfiction and a “means to an end”? What exactly are your desires for the doc?
Ben Hania: When creating a documentary about real individuals, it’s crucial to recognize that you become intertwined with their lives and aspirations. The impact extends beyond the confines of the film, as life continues after its completion. Documentary filmmaking consistently engages in a dialogue with the reality it portrays.
During the Cannes press conference, Olfa initiated a plea to the Tunisian government. She called for the repatriation of her daughters and a fair trial for them in Tunisia. Additionally, she highlighted the urgency of securing a brighter future for young Fatma, who is innocent and deserving of an education outside of incarceration. We are actively collaborating with Tunisian government agencies to help realize these objectives.