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film ‘Four Daughters’ Review: The Role Family Plays

Director Kaouther Ben Hania restages pivotal moments from a family’s life telling the story of a Tunisian woman who has four daughters, two of whom disappeared in 2015 to join ISIS in Libya.

Re-enactment is not an unusual or particularly novel tool in documentary filmmaking yet recently it seems to have made a pointed resurgence — perhaps because the method has a distinct relationship to trauma and offers a compelling means of picking open old wounds for cathartic and/or healing purposes. Think “Framing Agnes,” “Procession,” and Nathan Fielder’s HBO series “The Rehearsal.”

“Four Daughters” is another re-enactment film, distinct for the sense of intimacy and familiarity it brings to seemingly extraordinary circumstances. Olfa Hamrouni, a Tunisian woman, has four daughters, two of whom disappeared in 2015 to join ISIS in Libya. Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, the documentary blends direct testimony by Olfa and her two youngest daughters, Eya and Tayssir, with stagings of pivotal scenes from the family’s life. The talking-heads style confessions, beautifully framed in velvety shadows, resemble stained-glass portraits.

The docufictional interludes are performed by Eya and Tayssir, as well as two actresses who play the lost daughters Ghofrane (Ichraq Matar) and Rahma (Nour Karoui). A separate actress also plays Olfa (Hend Sabri), though Ben Hania shifts between the fictional drama and a behind-the-scenes perspective, meaning we occasionally see Olfa directing her double and tweaking the performances to conform to her version of events.

We learn that Eya and Tayssir, only teenagers when they fled Olfa’s home, turned to Islamic extremism as a form of rebellion; Olfa, because of an upbringing punctuated by violence and misogyny, raised her daughters with an iron fist. Despite the documentary’s exciting hybridity, the conceit is more interesting in theory than it is in practice. The re-enactments map out the family’s tension and lay bare their wounds, but the lost daughters remain cyphers — the appeal of radicalization frustratingly murky through the end.

Four Daughters
 In Arabic, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes. In theaters.

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