Using actors to bring to life story elements within the documentary film is becoming a more widespread practice, if one that’s still viewed with skepticism by some purists.
The films of Robert Greene spring to mind – Kate Plays Christine and Procession, for instance – and Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet. Errol Morris cast Peter Sarsgaard, Tim Blake Nelson, Bob Balaban and other stars to dramatize extended sequences in Wormwood, and famously used actors in the critical murder scene reenactment in the The Thin Blue Line.
The technique achieves a new level of artistry and organic relevance in Kaouther Ben Hania’s documentary Four Daughters (Les Filles d’Olfa), which premiered tonight in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. The Tunisian director cast actresses to play Olfa Hamrouni and her two eldest daughters, Rahma and Ghofrane, who as teenagers abruptly disappeared from the family home after becoming attached to radical Islamist ideology. Only later does the audience discover the girls left Tunisia to join ISIS; one of the girls married an ISIS leader and bore him a daughter.
The real Olfa and her two youngest daughters appear throughout the film. Early on, we are told the young women will play themselves in reenactments of events in the life of their family. Olfa, too, will take part in some reenactments, but an actress will sub for her in scenes too emotionally painful to re-experience.
In an early scene, Olfa and her youngest kids meet the actresses cast to play Rahma and Ghofrane. For the real family members, it’s almost as if the missing sisters have reappeared, so striking are the resemblance and demeanors of the actresses to the young women they’re portraying.
“We are going to relive it all,” one of the youngest daughters says. “It’s going to open up old wounds.” Indeed, before long, tears spring from Olfa’s eyes as she’s overcome with the sense of being reunited with her missing daughters.
In some documentaries that use actors one suspects it’s a crutch meant to cover up an absence of archival video. Here, the intent differs. Ben Hania’s primary objective is to explore in a more tangible way the grief of a mother and two daughters who have lost two loved ones – two legs of the table, as it were.
Four Daughters is riveting in large part because the charismatic Olfa galvanizes attention. Her dynamism cannot be obscured beneath a funereal head covering. Olfa grew up in a pre-Arab Spring Tunisia where Western dress (ironically) was enforced – women could be arrested for wearing a hijab. While that would suggest a degree of liberalism compared to other parts of the conservative Muslim world, it’s clear Olfa confronted the same reality of patriarchal domination as in other MENA countries. The difference – she fought back.
We learn Olfa and her siblings were raised by a single mother. No shrinking violent, Olfa says she deliberately undertook weight training to have the physical force to contend with men. “I became a man to protect my mother,” she recalls. “I hit anyone who attacked us.”
In one startling reenactment, the actress playing Olfa is seen on her wedding night (with the real Olfa observing the scene closely from the wings). Her new husband essentially attempts to rape her – a “consummation” of the union urged by one of Olfa’s own sisters who tells Olfa she should just let her husband mount her in a corner. But he’s in for a surprise when Olfa fights back and bloodies him. She takes a sheet to wipe up his wounds, then shows the red-stained fabric to her sister, who rejoices at what she interprets as evidence the consummation has occurred.
Olfa recalls that she would only allow her husband to have sex with her once a year, to facilitate reproduction. And, sure enough, that results in the birth of four daughters in succession (a stunning visual shows the four daughters in utero, a quartet of ultrasound videos). Eventually, Olfa divorces her husband and later recalls becoming romantically attached to another man – a guy who had escaped prison during the chaos of the Arab Spring uprising in Tunisia.
By the standards of the Arab world, Olfa may seem like a liberated woman. But as she and her youngest daughters recount anecdotes from the past, it’s clear she absorbed the conservative, male-oriented point of view that innocent girls are but one misstep away – a confessed attraction for a boy, a first kiss, for instance – from instant transformation into “whores.” Even when her youngest daughters were six and eight years old, respectively, Olfa fretted they were on the path to sin and damnation.
The idea that a judgmental and patriarchal God was surveilling the behavior of girls weighed heavily on Olfa and her daughters. All of the kids inherited Olfa’s strength of character and independence of mind, but when that manifested in one of the older kids entering a “goth” phase, it was apparently a step way too far. Seeming to fear the opprobrium of the community, Olfa recalls she reacted to her daughter’s bold choices with violent fury, and nearly beat her to death with a broom handle.
Eventually, the pendulum swung the other way and Rahma and Ghofrane followed a growing Islamist movement in Tunisia by draping themselves in the niqab. Soon, they became – if you’ll pardon the analogy – more Catholic than the pope; Rahma severly whipped her younger siblings if they were late for prayers.
Before long, Ghofrane had sworn allegiance to ISIS, and Rahma later did the same, and both headed to Libya with the intent of reaching ISIS headquarters in Syria. The girls – Ghofrane 17 at the time, Rahma 16 – became celebrities, with TV news showing photos of them in niqabs, toting assault weapons. They were charged with terrorism in absentia.
Four Daughters is about a mother coming to terms with the dangerous right turn taken by her daughters and realizing her own role in their downfall. By fretting over them becoming “whores,” she inadvertently pushed them towards religious extremism.
“I was so afraid for them that I was unable to protect them,” Olfa says at the end of the film. The process of actors portraying moments from their lives has given her clarity, and perhaps a small measure of solace.
Four Daughters is one of two documentaries to earn a spot in the competition at Cannes (Youth, by Wang Bing, is the other). It’s been almost 20 years since any nonfiction film earned the right to contend for the Palme d’Or (only films in competition can win the festival’s top prize). If Four Daughters should earn that honor, it will be a deserving winner.
Title: Four Daughters (Les Filles d’Olfa)
Festival: Cannes (main competition)
Director: Kaouther Ben Hania
Screenwriter: Kaouther Ben Hani
Cast: Olfa Hamrouni, Hend Sabri (as “Olfa”), Eya Chikhaoui, Tayssir Chikhaoui, Ichraq Matar (as “Ghofrane Chikhaoui”), Nour Karoui (as “Rahma Chikhaoui”)
Running time: 107 min
Sales agent: The Party Film Sales