Directed by: Kaouther Ben Hania
Written by: Kaouther Ben Hania
Released: February 29, 2024
Grade: B+

Four Daughters

The 96th Academy Awards are less than two weeks away and, in addition to capitalising on the popularity of the year’s best features, it’s a chance to celebrate other parts of the industry.  For example, a select number of cinemas across Australia are screening the wonderful short films, both live action and animated, which have been nominated this year.  It’s a rare chance for audiences to see “shorts” in the comfort of a big-screen theatre.

The same applies to documentaries.  As proof the Academy’s eyes are opening to a world outside of the United States, 2024 marks the first time in history that all five of the nominees for best documentary feature have come from outside the United States.  The subjects include a Ugandan singer trying to become President, a Chilean journalist battling dementia, an Indian farmer seeking justice for his raped teenage daughter, and a Ukrainian documentarian chronicling the war in his home country.

The final nominee is Four Daughters.  It’s centred on Olfa, a single mother from Tunisia who, as a result of mistakes she will freely admit, saw two of her four daughters leave home and join the Islamic State in Libya.  It fractured the family (obviously) and became an international media story.  It reached a point in 2016 when Olfa was appearing on television news programs and criticising her own government in allowing Islamic State “recruiting” to take place.

Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania takes an interesting approach to the material.  She conducts open, honest, tear-jerking interviews with Olfa and the two younger sisters who stayed in Tunisia.  Amongst these discussions, Ban Hania includes re-enactments where hired actresses play the two older sisters and a “stand-in” mother steps into the shoes of the real-life Olfa when things become too heavy and emotional.  We also follow the actors as they prepare for scenes and understand their characters.

Instead of a straight-forward narrative, Four Daughters has the vibe of a movie which is part documentary, part dramatization, and part behind-the-scenes filmmaking.  There are times when you’re not certain which category a particular scene fits into.  Am I watching two characters argue for real… or is it prep for a scene?  As explored in the recent May December, there’s also the challenge in working out how to depict the characters (emphasis on the mother) and settle on a version of the truth that the majority can agree upon.

While I like the creative approach, I don’t think the film offers a full understanding of the two older daughters and the way they were indoctrinated into Islamic State.  Reading a few online articles, as I have done, will help fill in the knowledge gaps.  I don’t think Four Daughters will win the Oscar (20 Days in Mariupol is a firm favourite) but it’s nice to see its audacity recognised by the Academy in receiving a nomination.  Check it out.