To say that there is social discord in the world is to make the understatement of the moment. Two hot wars are going on in Israel and Ukraine, authoritarianism is on the ascent, and this week the former President of this country — who is facing over 90 felony counts across four jurisdictions along with a civil trial that could bankrupt him — has vowed swift and potentially violent reprisals against those daring to hold him to account should he regain power… and he still somehow might win next year. Across the globe, in any number of different contexts, you can see how extremism and radicalization has corrupted people to tragic ends, which makes it all the more crucial that we keep the topic fresh in the public discourse. The more we confront this danger with facts, logic, and empathy, the better chance we have of dispelling it.
Such is the necessary backdrop for Tunisia’s Oscar submission this year, Four Daughters, directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, who helmed the country’s last film to be nominated for International Feature, The Man Who Sold His Skin. This documentary, which blends interviews with reenactments for the purposes of exposure therapy, uses a novel approach to dive into the trauma and shame associated with losing a loved one to these horrific influences. By giving the main subjects a chance to interact and observe the process by which their relatives were radicalized, the aim is to provide a cautionary tale, as well as a degree of hope for redemption, in the most moving of ways.
In 2016, a Tunisian woman named Olfa Hamrouni came to international attention after her two eldest daughters, Ghofrane and Rahma, left the family to join ISIS. Heartbroken for herself and fearful for her two younger offspring, Eya and Tassir, Olfa became something of a public figure in her advocacy against the Islamic State and the governmental forces of Tunisia and Libya who failed to prevent the defections. Now, seven years later, as Eya and Tassir have grown into young adults, Olfa has consented to Ben Hania documenting their story. In addition to sit-down talks with the three remaining women, slices of life are recreated using them as well as a small troupe of actors. Ichraq Matar plays Ghofrane, Nour Karoui fills in for Rahma (the others comment on how much they look like their real-life counterparts), Hend Sabri substitutes for Olfa herself in scenes that are too emotional, and Majd Mastoura handles all male roles.
With this framework in place, and some frank but lighthearted conversations in the makeup chair and wardrobe closets, Olfa, Eya, and Tassir guide the audience through their lives since the turn of the 21st century. Olfa, ever a strong presence, recounts how she refused to consummate her marriage according to tradition, because she was essentially sold into the institution rather than choosing her own man, noting that all four of her conceptions were on her own terms and initiative. After she left her first husband, she began seriously dating an escaped convict who treated her well, but as she later learned, harbored lustful thoughts and actions for her daughters, who eventually turned him in.
Olfa, herself the product of an abusive home, vowed to protect her children at all costs. She often chastised Ghofrane and Rahma for dressing in non-conservative ways, going through a goth phase, and even associating with boys, while at the same time coddling the younger two. It is this imbalance in administering rules that she believes led to her two elder children attending an ISIS rally and quickly being recruited. In what felt like an instant they were full-on committed believers, trading in band t-shirts for the hijab, sneaking out to meetings, and even threatening their family with the fires of Hell if they didn’t fully align with the propaganda.
The scenes that Ben Hania recreates are as fascinating as they are heartbreaking. You see Olfa and her daughters exhibiting strength and agency, you see the rapport all four children had with one another as youths, you see them working to support one another through every major crisis they faced. In many ways you could look at the Chikhaoui sisters like the March sisters from Little Women. They all have distinct personalities, their own goals and ambitions, and a steadfast loyalty to their mother, though admittedly there’s no real Jo of the group, and Olfa is about as far from Marmee as you can get in terms of character.
It’s because of this that the loss of Ghofrane and Rahma to such a hateful ideology weighs so heavily on Olfa, which she extends to us. She was proud of her independence and ability to demand a fair shake from life, even if it meant raising a family in poverty. But now, with years of hindsight and coping, she fears that her rebellion might have been the very thing that inspired her own daughters to rebel to the worst ends, that this is her punishment for some sin she couldn’t foresee. And in fairness, she’s by no means an ideal mother. Even during the reenactments she scolds Eya and Tassir, sometimes to the point of being outright hurtful. The crucial point though is that she’s willing to take as much criticism as she dishes out. If she is in any way to blame, she wants to know about it and fix it, so that maybe, one day, Ghofrane and Rahma can come home.
This world-weary insight is contrasted with Eya and Tassir, the younger of whom was only eight when Ghofrane ran off (Rahma left a few months later). Neither one was really old enough to fully grasp what was going on. One day the sisters who protected them, who they looked up to as role models, suddenly stopped being that. Instead they bullied them into wearing hijabs, told them that they were obligated to follow their interpretation of Allah, and ordered them to find husbands and bear children so that they could be seen as proper. Again, this is being told by teenagers to children under 10. Only now as Eya and Tassir have come of age themselves are they able to reconcile the trauma with the real implications of what their sisters’ choices could mean, and the degree of maturity they show as they discuss such possibilities is inspiring.
Spare a thought for the actors in this piece as well. Karoui and Matar go to great lengths to form a connection with Eya and Tassir, doing everything they can to get into the mindsets that Ghofrane and Rahma might have experienced during their radicalization (if there’s one truly frustrating aspect, it’s that we never really see or hear what it was in the ISIS men’s words that convinced them; all we get is generic street preacher rhetoric). Sabri does the same with Olfa, and between the three it’s amazing how willing they are to critique the decisions made in the moment, offering advice going forward once this experiment is done. As for Mastoura, a seasoned professional in his own right, there are some scenes that even he is uncomfortable performing, excusing himself during one particularly intense sequence. It’s one thing to play a fictional character, but to recreate an act of literal abuse becomes too much for him.
In many ways, Four Daughters serves as a companion piece to The Mission, which came out a few weeks earlier. Both deal, at their most essential, with the sad consequences of succumbing to religious fundamentalism. I’ll never say that people shouldn’t be free to practice their faith, but I think a reasonable compromise is to say that unless you can prove the Almighty’s existence, you don’t get to control others’ lives according to however you interpret His will. A lack of understanding that basic concept got a young Christian killed and sent two Muslim women into the arms of terrorists. Ironically, hatred and bigotry as concepts don’t discriminate. As long as you’re willing to impose your beliefs on someone else — through violence if you feel the need — you’re welcome into some truly grizzly organizations. That’s why we need films like this. Olfa, Eya, and Tassir still rightfully hold out hope that their lost family could return to sanity. For others it’s too late. But as long as there’s a chance to prevent future tragedy, this is a conversation we need to keep having.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Have you lost a loved one to extremism? Have you ever been able to bring someone back? Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!