Cannes-winning filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania on motherhood and the new wave of post-revolution Tunisian cinema

four Daughters Cannes
7 min read
07 June, 2023

At one point towards the end of Four Daughters, Olfa Hamrouni goes: “A cat is so afraid for its babies that it eats them. I'm like the cat Kaouther,” addressing the director of the film, Kaouther Ben Hania, who is off-screen.

Or maybe it is the renowned Egyptian-Tunisian actress Hend Sabri, who plays Olfa in the film, who says that line. It is hard to remember, or even to distinguish the two, as the film goes on.

Yet that line says something so evocative, that really encapsulates what Four Daughters is all about: a film about the often-terrible urge of protection that comes with motherhood and about the film’s self-reflexive approach, both in style and substance.

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Olfa Hamrouni is a divorced woman from the coastal town of Sousse, Tunisia, who made headlines in her home country when two of her four daughters, Rahma and Ghofrane, left Tunisia to join the Islamic State in Libya in 2014, before being imprisoned there.

This was a story that was rather common in Tunisia at the time, so hearing Olfa speak on the news about the heartbreaking loss of her daughters was not unusual.

"Four Daughters helps us understand the reproduction of violence across generations"

But when Oscar-nominated filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania heard Olfa on national television in 2016, it struck something. She saw in Olfa not a story about the roots of radicalisation, but about women and motherhood, as there was never any man in Olfa’s stories.

This was the starting point for the fictional documentary Four Daughters, which just had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.

It was the only Arab film in the Official Competition at Cannes this year and marked the first time in over 50 years a Tunisian film was in competition – and the first time ever for a Tunisian woman. (The last Tunisian director in Official Competition was the late great Abdellatif Ben Ammar in 1970).

Four Daughters may not have won the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes 2023 (that went to the French thriller Anatomy of a Fall), but it certainly was one of the most talked-about films at the festival.

Kaouther Ben Hania was awarded four different prizes at Cannes for it: the Oeil d'or for Best Documentary, tied with the Moroccan film Kadib Abyad (The Mother of All Lies) by Asmae El Moudir; the Citizenship Award, for which the jury said Four Daughters “helps us understand the reproduction of violence across generations;” the Prize for Positive Cinema, which rewards films that change the way we look at the world; and a Special Jury Mention in the François Chalais Prize, awarded to a film dedicated to the values of journalism.

Four Daughters
Four Daughters had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival this year 

Being in Official Competition at Cannes alongside world-renown filmmakers like Wes Anderson, Wim Wenders, Ken Loach and more, plus representing Tunisia for the first time in over a half-century is no small feat, but Kaouther Ben Hania is keeping her feet on the ground.

"This recognition is also a way for me to tell myself that I didn't make a mistake in making a film," she tells The New Arab. "You have so many doubts, and there are days when I say to myself, this is all rubbish, I shouldn't have made this film. It's long. It’s stressful. And then comes the good news... so you take it.”

"The aim of the film was not to re-open wounds. I thought of it as group therapy. A very important exchange of sisterhood"

Four Daughters, which is presented by Tanit Films and The Party Film Sales and is a French-Tunisian-German-Saudi co-production, is a film that takes a hybrid form between documentary and fiction, using metafiction to experiment with the documentary format.

That means it is both a film documenting Olfa and her real-life daughters (the two remaining ones in Tunisia are present in the film) and a film about the filmmaking process itself, as Kaouther Ben Hania uses professional and renowned actors, like Hend Sabri, to play Olfa and her daughters – so both the real-life characters and the actors playing them interact throughout.

This narrative means that we often have scenes where Hend Sabri – who wants to learn about her character as an actor – asks innocent yet hard-hitting questions to Olfa, for example how or why she hit her daughters, or more amusing yet bittersweet scenes in which Olfa’s daughters play in the make-up room with the actresses who play the two disappeared sisters, saying things like “this is how she wore her hijab” or “her hair looked exactly like this.”

“It was this kaleidoscopic game that I found allowed me to dig deeper, and bring back several perspectives,” Kaouther said. “The aim of the film was not to re-open wounds. I thought of it as group therapy. A very important exchange of sisterhood.”

When Kaouther originally met Olfa in 2016, declaring her wish to make a film about her, she initially began filming in a fly-on-the-wall documentary style, recording Olfa’s interaction with her daughters.

But the filmmaker, who is highly experienced in hybrid documentary films and even news docs (she was part of the founding team of Al Jazeera Documentaries), felt that a classic documentary would not get to the heart and soul of Olfa’s complex story – some elements of fiction had to be used.

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Four Daughters is also, implicitly, a criticism of mass media and how it perpetuates clichés of characters. The director said that when she initially met Olfa she was conditioned by journalists in this role of a hysterical, grieving mother. She was so used to playing that role in interviews that it also became a performance in itself.

But Olfa in real life – like any person – is a multi-faceted character, full of moral ambiguities. Yes, she is a grieving mother, but you also observe how she often mistreated and abused her daughters, and shows little guilt or remorse.

It is in the scenes in which Olfa interacts with actress Hend Sabri that we experience catharsis. For the director, the film’s self-reflexive and meta style aimed to encourage collective introspection.

“Mothers pass on their traumas to their daughters in an unconscious way because they never do any introspective work, and so on – that's the curse Olfa talks about at the end of the film [as she tells Hend Sabri about her erratic behaviour: “I can't help it. It's a legacy of several generations”], so we need to do some introspective work," Kaouther Ben Hania said. “The girls knew it was going to be hard, but they needed to talk. They said to me, ‘You've given us a voice.’”

"Reality is not confiscated by the dictatorship, so we're trying to reclaim the streets, reclaim our stories, and our imaginations too, and that's very important"

Kaouther Ben Hania had already reached international acclaim for her films Beauty and the Dogs in 2018, which was in Cannes in the Un Certain Regard section, and The Man Who Sold His Skin, with Monica Bellucci, which premiered at the 2020 Venice Film Festival, won the award for Best Actor, and was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category.

Four Daughters, which is to be released on July 5 in France, with dates still to be announced for other countries, serves as further proof of Kaouther Ben Hania’s status as one of the most visionary and original filmmakers in the Arab world.

Her success is also a testament to the “new wave” of Tunisian cinema in the post-revolution years, especially after last year’s Cannes edition saw several Tunisian films by young directors be widely acclaimed.

Along with Kaouther Ben Hania, Tunisian filmmakers like Ala Eddine Slim, Walid Mattar, Abdelhamid Bouchnak, Mehdi M. Barsaoui, Erige Sehiri, Youssef Chebbi, and Mohamed Ben Attia, who are mostly in their forties, represent a new generation of filmmaking talents freed by the “Jasmine revolution.”

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Despite the lack of public funds in Tunisia towards the cultural sector which means that Tunisian filmmakers still rely on countries like France, Germany, or Saudi Arabia to produce films, there is a new creative energy and freedom of thought that is unquestionable.

And Kaouther Ben Hania, who grew up in Sidi Bouzid, the cradle of the 2010-2011 revolution, confirms it.

“Of course [we can speak about a new wave of cinema in Tunisia], because there's no longer any censorship, and that changes everything. In other words, we're able to make poignant films that are in touch with reality," she explains. 

"Reality is not confiscated by the dictatorship, so we're trying to reclaim the streets, reclaim our stories, and our imaginations too, and that's very important.”

Alexander Durie is a Multimedia Journalist for The New Arab, working across video, photography, and feature writing and attended the Cannes Film Festival this year where this interview took place. 

Follow him on Twitter: @alexander_durie