Review by Sean Boelman
Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania has already had one movie nominated for the Best International Film Oscar (2020’s The Man Who Sold His Skin), and hopes to be earning that honor again with another submission this year. The filmmaker’s latest effort, Four Daughters, takes a very unique approach to telling its subjects stories — an ambitious swing that pays off in its emotional resonance.
The film tells the story of a Tunisian woman and her four daughters, two of whom suddenly disappeared one day. Much of the movie is a reflection on this family and their stories, but there is the looming specter of the two eldest daughter’s disappearance hanging over the seemingly mundane affairs. Of course, there’s more to this story than it seems.
What makes Four Daughters stand out is its elements of dramatization. Although plenty of films incorporate reenactments or other staged elements, Ben Hania’s approach to this story is very different. She casts actors to represent the two missing daughters — as well as the mother in some scenes — often having them interact with the real subjects.
At first, it feels as if this device might become gimmicky, but the emotional necessity of its use soon becomes extremely obvious. Just as much as this method is about challenging the audience to perceive this story in a different light, it provides the subjects a cathartic experience to process their emotions.
What Ben Hania does best in the movie is getting the audience to identify with each of the subjects. Each of the four daughters — including the two being portrayed by actors — has a distinct personality that Ben Hania fleshes out through allowing the subjects to share anecdotes and stories. However, even more compelling is their mother, who conveys an unexpected feeling of hope — even in a time of tremendous tragedy.
The most interesting aspects of the film are those in which the subjects discuss the patriarchal society that is a big part of the Muslim culture in Tunisia. Interestingly, the subjects themselves have created a sort of matriarchal microcosm within this patriarchy, and the contrast between them having to conform to external conventions while also practicing this unorthodox family dynamic is brilliantly explored.
That being said, the movie is slightly less effective in its exploration of its themes of religion. Of course, there are more than a few times where the thematic lines are blurred because of the role that religion plays in the creation and enforcement of these patriarchal values in Tunisian society. However, in the final act, when the film makes its bleaker turn, it starts to feel much softer in its criticism.
There is obviously a lot of nuance in the situation Kaouther Ben Hania sets out to capture in her documentary Four Daughters, and her equally nuanced approach to telling this story allows her to convey it. While the movie is a tad convoluted, and perhaps doesn’t hit hard enough, it’s impossible not to admire Ben Hania’s ambition.
Four Daughters is screening at the 2023 Chicago International Film Festival, which runs October 11-22.