Review: ‘Four Daughters’ (2023), starring Hind Sabri, Olfa Hamrouni, Eya Chikhaoui, Tayssir Chikhaoui, Nour Karoui, Ichraq Matar and Majd Mastoura

March 10, 2024

by Carla Hay

Pictured from left to right: Eya Chikhaouim, Ichraq Matar, Nour Karoui and Tayssir Chikhaoui in “Four Daughters” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Four Daughters” (2023)

Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania

Arabic with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Tunisia, the docudrama film “Four Daughters” features an all-Tunisian group of people discussing a family whose two of four daughters became terrorists.

Culture Clash: Through re-enactments and interviews, the women’s mother and the other two sisters take a candid look at their family dynamics that led them to this point.

Culture Audience: “Four Daughters” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about how families are torn apart when members of the family leave to become radical terrorists.

Hind Sabri and Olfa Hamrouni in “Four Daughters” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Four Daughters” is an impactful movie that layers documentary elements with dramatic acting to make a film within a film. By using some of the real-life people in the re-enactments, it’s both an examination and cinematic therapy of a family’s love and painful fracturing. The transitions between the documentary-styled interviews and the dramatic acting are mostly seamless, although it all might be a bit disorienting to some viewers.

Directed and written by Kaouther Ben Hania, “Four Daughters” had its world premiere at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival, where the movie won three awards: L’Œil d’or (the prize for Best Documentary), in tie where the award also went to “The Mother of All Lies”; the François Chalais Prize (the award for journalistic excellence); and Prix de la Citoyenneté (the Citizenship Award). “Four Daughters” also won Best Documentary Feature at the 2024 Film Independent Spirit Awards and was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2024 Academy Awards.

“Four Daughters” begins by introducing the three women who portray themselves in the re-enactments: Olfa Hamrouni is the divorced mother of the four daughters who inspired the name of the documentary. Eya Chikhaoui (born in 2003) and Tayssir Chikhaoui (born in 2005) are Hamrouni’s two youngest daughters, who were living with her at the time this movie was filmed. Hamrouni’s two eldest daughters are Ghotrane (born in 1998) and Rahma (born in 1999), who both became raidical terrorists, and left Tunisia to go to Lybia. A caption in the movie’s introduction says that Ghotrane Chikaoui and Rahma Chikaoui were “devoured by the wolf,” which is a euphamism for saying that they became consumed by the radical ideology that took them away from their mother and sisters.

“Four Daughters” has several scenes of Hamrouni, Eya and Tayssir acting in scenes with and getting to know the actresses who are in the re-enactments: Hind Sabri has the role of Hamrouni; Ichraq Matar has the role of Ghofrane; Nour Karoui has the role of Rahma. Sabri is seen early in the movie getting makeup applied before she is about to meet Hamrouni. Sabri admits that she feels “stressed,” as if it’s her first movie and that she’s nervous to meet the woman she has the responsibility of portraying.

The first meeting between Sabri and Hamrouni goes very well. Hamrouni assures and warns the anxious Sabri about what “Four Daughters” director Ben Hania has planned for the movie: “Kaouther isn’t going to invent anything in the story. It’s all true. And that could be disturbing for you.”

In a separate scene, Hamrouni admits in an interview that acting in a movie about her life has made her feel like the heartbroken-but-resilient character of Rose in “Titanic.” Hamrouni gets more emotional when she, Eya and Tayssir meet Matar and Karoui. At first, the mother and daughters are in awe of how much the actresses resemble Ghotrane and Rama.

But then, Hamrouni breaks down in tears as they all sit on a sofa together. Hamrouni begins to cry after asks Matar to sit next to her on the sofa, because Hamrouni says she was the real Ghofrane would have sat next to her if she were there. Eya says, “That’s what’s going to be so painful. We are going to relive it all. It’s going to open the wounds.”

Ghofrane is described as having a calm presence, and she was closer to her mother than Rahma was. Later in the movie, the family says that Ghofrane was the one who became a religous fanatic first and started wearing a hijab at all times. Rahma then followed and became a more hardcore radical than Ghofrane. For a while, Hamrouni and youngest daughter Tayssir also wore hijabs, but they never became radicalized. Eya was the only one in this family of women who refused to wear a hijab and become a fundamentalist Muslim.

Viewers of “Four Daughters” will have to be patient before the movie gets to the story of how Ghofrane and Rahma drastically changed. The first two-thirds of the movie are a combination of showing and telling how the family was before Ghofrane and Rahma reached the point of no return in becoming estranged from their mother and sisters. What emerges is a portrait of the family that was already splintering from generational trauma and abuse.

Hamrouni begins by talking about and re-enacting her unhappy marriage. It’s implied that it was an arranged marriage because Hamrouni makes it clear that she was never in love with her husband. On their wedding night, which is re-enacted in the movie, she resisted having sex with her husband, whose first name is not mentioned in the film. They got into a physical fight, and blood ended up on her wedding dress.

Hamrouni proudly says that she got her way and avoided having sex with her husband that night. However, Hamrouni’s sister scolded her that night and told her that she needed to be a good wife and do what her husband expected her to do. Hamrouni then says that for the rest of her miserable marriage, on the rare occasions that she and her husband had sex, it was only to conceive children.

“Four Daughters” has only one actor portraying all the movie’s male characters: Majd Mastoura. He portrays the abusive men in Hamrouni’s life: her husband (whom she eventually left) and an ex-con boyfriend named Wissem, who was in prison for murder but escaped from prison during the chaos of the Tunisian Revolution of 2011. Mastoura also has roles as a boyfriend of a teenage Ghofrane and as a police officer who takes a report when a frantic Hamrouni reports Ghofrane missing after Ghofrane ran away from home.

“Four Daughters” takes a brutally honest look at the problems in the family. Hamrouni says that her ex-husband was physically and verbally abusive to her and her daughters. Ghofrane got the worst of the abuse, her sisters say, because Ghofrane was the eldest child. However, Hamrouni admits that she physically abused her daughters too. She would often whip them out of anger. A tearful and regretful Hamrouni says that she ended up mistreating her daughters in the same way that Hamrouni’s abusive mother mistreated Hamrouni.

Hamrouni acknowledges that she was overly strict and paranoid about her daughters dating or being interested in sex. Part of that paranoia stems from Hamrouni’s own childhood, when she says that she and her sisters were raised by a single mother, and men would try to force themselves into the home to sexually assault them. Hamrouni says she had to disguise herself as a man to protect herself, her mother and her sisters. Hamrouni’s bad experiences with her male partners also undoubtedly affected her attitude in how she tried to instill in her daughters a fear of men.

Hamrouni says that her relationship with Wissem started off as a fairy-tale romance, where she fell in love with him like a giddy teenager. She said the fact that Wissem (who was a butcher as his job) was in prison for murder didn’t bother her because he treated her so well. But a dark family secret is revealed in the documentary: Eya and Tayssir say that Wissem was far from the “nice guy” he appeared to be, because he sexually abused all four of the sisters.

Hamrouni doesn’t comment in the documentary about this sexual abuse, but when it’s mentioned, her eyes and facial expression give away that she knows that it happened, and she feels ashamed that she didn’t protect her daughters. Apparently, Wissem had her fooled, and Hamrouni was blinded by her love for him. Rahma and Ghofrane say that their mother blamed them for Wissem going away. A scene briefly shows actor Mastour as Wissem in a prison cell, which implies that Wissem went to prison for these sex crimes.

In the movie, Eya is more talkative and expressive than Tayssir, although Tayssir later says that Eya is less likely to stand up for herself than Tayssir is. The family also experienced hunger and poverty. A re-enactment of a family dinner scene reveals that even when the family was starving, Ghofrane was very picky about what she would eat. By contrast, Rahma would eat almost anything that she was given.

An emotionally powerful re-enactment scene happens when Eya and Tayssir, portraying themselves, are sitting on the same bed as Mastoura, who portrays the predatory Wissem in this scene. Eya tells Wissem, “I hate you” with an intensity that affects actor Mastoura so much, he has to leave the room, and he asks to have a private conversation off-camera with director Ben Hania.

Meanwhile, Eya is clearly feeling some kind of catharsis from doing this scene, because she seems very proud of herself for doing this scene without breaking down and crying. After actor Mastoura asks to take a break because of how he was affected by this scene, Eya says that Mastoura should understand that she’s only acting. However, the painful memories are all too real for Tayssir, who quietly cries during this emotionally heavy scene.

During “Four Daughters,” the actresses are seen observing the real-life people they are portraying and practicing things such as mimicking their voices and body language. Old videos of Ghotrana and Rahma are shown to the actresses portraying them. All four daughters were in a parade for then-Tunisian president/dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in 2011. Hamrouni says that she and her daughters were loyal supporters of Ben Ali.

It’s unclear when the family really began to experience financial hardships, but Hamrouni says the family’s life got worse after the Tunisian Revolution. Hamrouni went to work in Libya as a house cleaner. And that meant her daughters were often not under her supervision.

Older daughters Ghofrane and Rahma started to rebel by doing things such as skipping school. They began listening to heavy metal and dressed in Goth style, much to the disapproval of Hamrouni, who thought that Ghofrane and Rahma were becoming satanists. The movie has a re-enactment of an exorcism on Rahma.

And so, when Ghofrane and Rahma began seemed to have religious awakenings by ditching their Goth lifestyles and dressing in hijabs, Hamrouni says that she was initially relieved because she thought that it meant that her two oldest daughters were on the right track to turn their lives around. Little did the family know that this switch from one extreme to another would turn out to cause a permanent family rift.

There are moments in “Four Daughters” that are not easy to watch, especially scenes involving abuse. Rahma became so fanatical, she would whip Eya and Tayssir for things such as being late to prayer sessions. Rahma would also frequently accuse her younger sisters (especially Tayssir) of being “infidels.”

All four sisters had a fixation on death and would play games where a sister would pretend to be dead, and they would pretend to have burial and funeral rituals. Eya says these games were “fun” for the sisters, like “going to Disneyland.” But these morbid games are indications of severe emotional turmoil.

“Four Daughters” also shows how these family members see how they are perceived by the actresses who are spending time getting to know them. Karoui, who has the role of Rahma, keenly observes that Rahma’s religious fanatacism was a way for Rahma to control and manipulate the sisters’ overly strict mother after Rahma’s Goth rebellion phase didn’t work.

There are also indications that the actresses want to keep a certain professional distance when the family members start to blur the lines between wanting to get to know the actresses and treating them like real family members. Hamrouni essentially admits that she was closest to eldest daughter Ghofrane. But when Hamrouni asks actress Matar (who has the role of Ghofrane) if Matar would want Hamrouni to be her mother in real life, Matar looks uncomfortable and doesn’t answer. Matar’s non-response says it all, and Hamrouni tries not to look hurt and embarrassed.

For better or worse, “Four Daughters” doesn’t reveal until toward the end of the film what happened to Ghofrane and Rahma after they became terrorists. Some viewers might think this information comes too late in the movie. However, the buildup to these final scenes is meant to show that this family—even with their problems before the separation—had a certain unity that is now gone. “Four Daughters” might not heal the family’s heartbreak over the two daughters who left the family. The movie is a cautionary tale of what can happen when people lose loved ones to radical ideologies that can destroy family relationships.

Kino Lorber released “Four Daughters” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on December 19, 2023.

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