Four Daughters review – fact and fiction mix in mother’s heartbreak over Islamic State
Actors and real people re-enact the past to understand why two daughters left Tunisia to fight for IS in Syria, leaving the rest of the family behind
There is real emotional warmth and human sympathy in this otherwise somewhat flawed film, a docudrama experiment in getting actors to play some of the real people in a tragic news story from Tunisia. Olfa Hamrouni, a divorced woman from the coastal town of Sousse, made the headlines seven years ago when two of her four daughters, Rahma and Ghofrane, broke her and their sisters’ hearts by vanishing from the country to become fighters and wives for Islamic State in Syria. Now director Kaouther Ben Hania re-enacts key parts of Olfa’s family life, featuring the remaining sisters Eya and Tayssir playing themselves, but performers playing the vanished fugitives: Ichraq Matar is Ghofrane and Nour Karoui is Rahma.
Despite the fact that she hasn’t vanished, and is in fact a vivid and formidable onscreen figure, Olfa is also played by an actor, Hend Sabri, so the procedure is already in fact slightly muddled, though no less intriguing. The performers and real figures are interviewed together, and then scenes are played out, with Olfa coming on to say where they’re going wrong. The actor Majd Mastoura plays Olfa’s distant and abusive father, and the film shows how weirdly upset he becomes to embody a vicious character from the real world.
Ben Hania seems to have embarked on this process with an open mind, having no clear idea what light this approach would shed on the case. In fact, I’m not sure how much light is shed on it, and in fact this technique might even be entirely wrong for finding out how and when exactly the two young women became radicalised. Imagining what was going on inside their heads using actorly intuition might not get us very far. In fact, a TV discussion panel clip showing Olfa furiously denouncing the politicians, and saying that their tolerance of jihadist imams after the Arab Spring was what turned her daughters, is a rather shrewd insight of the sort that docudrama does not yield.
However, these women have such a presence on screen that their sympathy drives the movie. There is something mysteriously moving about the real Eya and Tayssir being introduced to the actresses playing their sisters, and being awestruck and moved by how similar they are – and how strange it is to feel the four-way dynamic of their sisterly relationship being restored in this semi-fictionalised form.