Four Daughters review – complex but flawed act of cinematic therapy
Kaouther Ben Hania's immersive doc finds potent truths in its re-enactments, but loses focus as it gradually abandons its premise
Performance therapy – the process of writing and acting out moments charged with trauma so we can process and come to terms with it – has made its way onto our screens in recent years in a variety of non-fiction projects. Procession, Casting JonBenet, even Nathan Fielder’s The Rehearsal engage with and question the effectiveness of performance for processing difficult traumatic states.
Four Daughters, a documentary with reenactments helmed by Kaouther Ben Hania, concerns itself with a deeply fraught topic – a single Tunisian mother, Olfa Chikhaoui, living with the disappearances of her eldest daughters before they turned 18. Her two younger daughters, Eya and Tayssir, join Olfa as actresses play Ghofrane and Rahma in reenactments of their childhood.
The scene where Nour Karoui and Ichraq Matar first join the remaining family members bristles with tense excitement, no-one can stop themselves commenting on all the similarities between performer and role – and, inevitably, they all break down in tears. This process is not going to be a nostalgic one, rather a pained excavation of the memories and questions that have never been addressed outside of this film.
Soon, the Chikhaouis grow in confidence as they realise how much freedom can be found in replaying a traumatic past within a controlled environment on their terms. Eya and Tayssir openly discuss how they were raised in front of both the cameras and their mother, sparing no details – including uncomfortable accounts of Olfa’s corrective violence. But the sudden discomfort the viewer feels only strengthens how empowered the younger sisters feel about getting a platform to confront the parenting they received.
In one standout scene, the actor standing in for Olfa’s boyfriend (Majd Mastoura) refuses to carry on acting with the sisters that his character likely abused – Eya and Tayssir explain with conviction how necessary his presence is, how much they need the opportunity to readdress the devastating impact this man had on them, all while one of them plays with a kitchen knife across her palm. Elsewhere, Olfa experiences firsthand the control offered by directing as she guides the actress playing herself, Hend Sabri, through her wedding night – even getting to inhabit and externalise the pain she was subjected to by roleplaying as her cruel sister.
It sounds packed with potent introspection, but these moments are largely front-loaded; Four Daughters suffers from gradually abandoning its premise as the intense and upsetting details of the Chikhaoui family’s story take over. Four Daughters is best experienced with as little knowledge of the subjects as possible, but despite the sisters’ story always being compelling, its telling comes at the cost of Hania’s premise. We’re robbed of climatic confrontations between actors and family members, as Hania opts instead for talking heads and archive footage to secure an affecting but simpler endnote. Ultimately, Hania has constructed a complex look at female relationships under oppressive conditions, but should have trusted her creative process more.
Four Daughters was screened as part of the Cannes Film Festival 2023. A UK release date has yet to be announced.Where to watch