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Kaouther Ben Hania: “It’s a film where I took all the risks”

Olfa Hamrouni & hend Sabri – ©Tanit Films

By Raphaël Bourgois

“Four Daughters” follows the story of Olfa Hamrouni and her daughters, exploring family dynamics and the radicalization of the two eldest in a unique blend of documentary and fiction. The director, Kaouther Ben Hania, stopped by Villa Albertine where she was a resident in 2022 and shared insights ahead of the film’s nomination for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards.

How did you discover this story, and what, in your opinion, made it immediately film material?
I first discovered Olfa’s story in 2016 when she appeared in the media. What struck me from the onset was her incredible character, contradictions, and “larger than life” personality, as we say in the United States, making her a figure worthy of a Dostoyevsky novel. I wanted to understand this story of a mother with four daughters who sees the two eldest, still teenagers, leave to join a terrorist group in Libya. But I didn’t immediately know where I wanted to go or what to do with it. A film, certainly, since I’m a director, but it was only as the research and  creative process progressed that I found the form.

I was immediately drawn to the feminine dimension of this story because while there’s been a lot of talk about these groups , it’s usually men who are involved. I wanted to explore this story in dimensions that are not often highlighted: the mother-daughter relationship, the  experiences of young girls in Tunisia just after the fall of Ben Ali, the weight of tradition and radical Islam on destinies and bodies… There’s also something of a Greek tragedy; Olfa resembles Medea. Finally, there is also a sense of the Gods’ curse. All that made it a very suitable subject for a film.

At what point in the creative process did this hybrid form, somewhere between documentary, fiction, and making-of, come to the forefront?
I spent a lot of time thinking about what form this story would take. A documentary was the obvious choice, as the protagonists were so captivating, and their ability to narrate their experiences was remarkable. Olfa and her daughters have a natural talent for storytelling. However, I quickly realized that a conventional documentary was not appropriate for the complex story I wanted to tell. It was imperative to explore the family’s past. But how could we represent on screen a distant  past inaccessible to our lens? That’s when I turned to historical reconstruction using actors, although the technique is often controversial. In this context, understanding meant remembering and reviving the past. Therefore, I imagined a set-up in which real characters guide actors to recall. reflect, and analyze together, aiming to grasp the chain of events. I conceived the story as an introspective quest to unravel the origins of a tragedy.

It was also necessary to invent a mechanism that would allow me not to be overwhelmed by Olfa’s character. Every word she utters and every speech she makes is accurate; she captivates the audience with natural ease in the art of oratory despite her modest education. To add a little distance, I called on an actress to “play” her role, alternating with her on-screen appearances. They stand face to face, and the actress holds up a mirror to Olfa, reflecting her complexity. This approach allows us to understand Olfa in depth, in all her dimensions.

The actress Hend Sabri is a star in Tunisia and the Arab world. Were there any concerns that she would take up   too much space compared to Olfa?
It’s a film where I took all the risks and was constantly afraid of making mistakes. The choice of Hend Sabri was first and foremost Olfa’s idea, as she had loved her in The Flower of Aleppo. which was still in theaters in Tunisia in 2016 when we first met. Hend Sabri plays the role of a mother looking for her son, who has left to join a terrorist group in Syria, which resonated strongly with Olfa’s story, and she immediately told me that the documentary had to be even better than this film. Hend Sabri is indeed a star, who has made successful films in Egypt. But she’s also an actress who likes to take risks. As she says from the very beginning of the film, this was the smallest team she had ever worked with, so she was outside her comfort zone. This kind of mise en abyme of the actor’s craft reflects what it means to represent reality. The creative and production process becomes apparent, and the documentary becomes a meta-documentary.

As you said, the film is constructed like a Greek tragedy, with a unity of place, action, and time. And then there’s fate…
I don’t like the word fate, as it doesn’t encourage understanding. In the film, Olfa mentions a curse several times, a term that could be in the same family. She talks about her very harsh and strict upbringing and how she reproduced it with her daughters. For her, it’s an inherited curse, which consists of constantly repeating what we receive from our mothers. Hend Sabri tells her that’s the way it always goes; what we learn from our mothers, we pass on to our daughters until one generation stands up and says no. Sometimes in a wholly unexpected and tragic way.

For me, it’s first and foremost a matter of circumstance, and that’s why it’s so important to revive memories and try to understand. It’s the story of a woman and her daughters, a very particular story, but one that allows us to touch on universal stories. I see this at screenings all around the world. Audiences, especially women viewers, see themselves in this film regardless of their culture, history, or language. The characters touch them, and they come to talk to me about their mothers and family heritage. There’s something universal about this film, and the fact that it was nominated for the Academy Awards shows it.

Olfa is a complex character, both a strong and submissive woman. As you show in the scene on her wedding night, she can resist her husband.  Yet she teaches her daughters to be obedient to men, ashamed of their bodies and their desires, and denies their independence until the tragic end. Why was it necessary to show this complexity?
I love characters who, like Olfa, are both angels and demons, sublime and sordid, victims and executioners. The more complex the character, the more interesting I find it. It’s a reflection of humanity. There’s no such thing as a smooth, one-dimensional character. This is visible in what we understand about the transformationof the two eldest daughters: gothic one day and wearing hijabs the next. These love-starved teenagers have been abused and beaten, suspected of doing wrong, and are looking for an identity, an ideal. Gothic at first, but Satan didn’t work because it’s not very powerful. Turning to God gives them a celestial dimension, allowing them to lecture their mother and reverse their relationship.

This is obvious in a scene that re-enacts an argument between Rahma, the eldest daughter, played by Nour Karoui, and Olfa, who plays herself. Rahma blames her mother for continuing to wear pants. There’s something powerful about it because, above all, we feel the reality of the situation. We can see how Olfa relives it through this device of re-enactment. It’s an incredible scene, for we see how Olfa, the infallible, strong woman who controls her daughters, wavers in the face of this argument. Her daughter gets the upper hand, and she ends up saying something along the lines of “I taught them to shoot; they shot me.”

The film also has a therapeutic dimension, which comes up regularly in the words of the three protagonists. How did this come about?
It came about unconsciously. As soon as you talk about introspection, about the past, you’re in the realm of therapy, for lack of a better term. I was well aware of this, and it was crucial for me. I wanted to create a safe space for the cast to feel confident in front of the camera crew and at ease when dealing with very personal and sensitive subjects. I feared that they would relapse into their traumas. But the whole process exceeded my expectations. The result we experienced with Olfa and her daughters during the shoot was a long journey of confession, which continued in chatter long after the camera was turned off. It wasn’t just therapeutic for her but also for  the women in the crew.

One example on screen is the confrontation between Eya, who plays herself, and Majd Mastoura, who plays  Olfa’s lover, a criminal who escaped during the January 2011 revolution and with whom she is madly in love. But we understand that this man has abused the girls. In this scene, the actor is lying down, having just injected himself with drugs, when  Eya confronts him, kitchen knife in hand, to say all the evil he has done to her. The actor can’t take it and asks you to cut. What do you think is at stake here?
Well, it was a difficult film for the actors because they were outside their comfort zone. Actors are used to having written characters, a script, not real life in front of them. Majd Mastoura felt during this scene that he didn’t have the tools to respond to what Eya was giving him. He asked me to stop filming and pulled me aside to tell me that he wasn’t a therapist and didn’t feel comfortable. Unlike me, he didn’t know the girls and, therefore, didn’t know that they’d already been in therapy for a long time. This was confirmed by Eya immediately afterwards when she said that, for her, the issue was settled. We were worried and confused by this young girl telling and reliving this horrible story, and she was the one who reassured us that she needed this scene in the film.

The film also shows cinematographic scenes, with carefully chosen framing and lighting. There’s always the question of how to aestheticize horror, especially in documentary films. What were your choices in this respect?
The reality I’m capturing doesn’t exist outside the film. In other words, there would never be a situation in which an actor  plays out someone’s life. Since it’s a made-up reality, I, as the director, can intervene. I’m not doing a live shot of an ugly reality where nobody thinks about what they’re wearing or what the decor looks like. So, I wanted to control this aesthetic dimension while leaving a great deal of freedom for content, dialogue, and reactions. I wanted to make a film with a particular aesthetic unity, with recurring colors pleasing the eye. And I wanted to film their faces too. My cinematographic references are Bergman’s way of filming faces, whom I believe is the greatest master in this area. I can also mention Kiarostami’s “Close Up,” a film that made me see cinema differently.

The film’s historical background includes the 2011 revolution and its aftermath in Tunisia, notably the emergence of an Islamist movement that had until then been repressed by the Ben Ali dictatorship, and that swept away these two young girls. It’s a social, political, historical, and cultural revolution you approach through the intimate.
A moment like this is unique in the history of a nation; it’s a seismic event. I remember that everyone around me changed, regaining their individuality. It was the moment when our antagonisms and differences exploded, far from the dictatorship that forces everyone to be alike. And it was fascinating to listen to Olfa tell me how she, too, had revolted: she got a divorce and took on a lover; it was total freedom. Her daughters grew up at the same time. There’s something very connected between the history of Tunisia and the story of this family, which should always remind us that political changes also affect the lives of everyday people.

How has your experience been the last ten years as a filmmaker?
It was great because suddenly, there was no censorship, and I could make my films. I think that’s when I became a director. For example, I shot my first film, which I finished in 2010, in Paris, not in Tunisia, because we were still under Ben Ali. At the time, taking a camera out was guaranteed to result in the arrival of the police. The revolution allowed me to start making films in Tunisia. The mere fact that these films exist and that the Ministry of Culture finances them shows a genuine change; it proves there has indeed been a revolution.

Recently,Olfa’s Daughters  won a César Award and is competing  for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Can you tell me about the reception of this film in Tunisia, France, and the United States?
The film was released in Tunisia on September 20, 2023, and is still in theaters. It’s a great success, and the nominations and awards add to the national pride that surrounds it. But what’s incredible about the film is that it’s provoked, more or less, the same reactions in Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, France, Germany, the United States… That reassures me in that I wanted to share my intentions with the audience on a human level. And I have the impression that it works. First, at least one person is always crying in the audience, and that’s good. Secondly, the public’s questions constantly revolve around the intimate. How are they doing? How did they react when they saw the film? How are the two sisters imprisoned in Libya? There’s a kind of empathy that’s created and allows us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, to experience a story that could be seen as very Tunisian, very local.

There must be some specificities, though. In France, I imagine that the question of the relationship to religion, to Islam, and the place of women in this religion comes up quite quickly. How has the complexity you’ve managed to bring to this subject been perceived?
There is indeed a French obsession with the hijab. It’s good that we tell our stories from the inside to deliver a point of view that considers the complexity of situations, which are not reduced to submissive relationships, as is too often the case in the media. Literature and cinema allow for complexity, and I find that incredible because we live in a world where things are extraordinarily oversimplified and Manichean. Social  media is all about thinking in two or three lines; everyone’s an expert on what they’re talking about, and there’s always a prejudice in the air. But to understand, you have to avoid prejudice. In any case, that’s what I tried to do in this film.

You were a resident at  Villa Albertine in Los Angeles, working on a science fiction film about artificial intelligence. Why this interest in  science fiction?
Because it’s the genre that best speaks of what it’s like to be human. It’s the genre of deployment philosophy. I want to tell a very human story in a very distant future. We’re living in a very particular moment in human history, with new technologies evolving exponentially. I wanted to tell this story, this uncertainty, from my philosophical, mythical point of view because science fiction has a link with the great founding myths. That’s what I’m always looking for: this link between humanity’s future and its origins.

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