Inserting yourself into the story you’re telling is always a risk. Kaouther Ben Hania, the director of Four Daughters, makes herself known in her docu-fiction experiment, seen coaching to some extent her subjects. The film moving between the rooms of their family home and a backstage setting with makeup being applied (perhaps admitting to the surprisingly glossy look of much of the film), it readily anticipates criticism of itself for exploitation. Though lining a couch for much of the runtime, our five subjects are very comfortable in front of the camera, and you kind of just trust them.
Sharing a title with Curtiz but not shaming it, in Armond terms, Four Daughters is definitely an admirable, if uneven experiment. A teary tone is set from near the beginning and it’s hard not to be at least a little moved; two of the four daughters in this family have gone missing for reasons we’ll find out about deeper into the film. The Tunisian matriarch at the center, Olfa Hamrouni, compares herself to the elder Rose in the framing device of Titanic telling her story. A complicated figure, deeply protective of her daughters but also as she catches one listening to “devil music” at one point, sometimes abusive. Often laughing to herself as she does a direct address to the camera, the years of pain weighing so heavily on her that she could crack at any moment, you know the director has certainly found the right subject for a film, if there are maybe a few stumbles along the way.
Employing a meta-fiction gimmick of recreating scenes from her family’s life, often with actors playing them, everyone’s at least a little aware of some self-aggrandizement. Though you won’t think of that in the early scenes depicting Olfa’s own dealings with a shitty husband. The heaviness is occasionally broken up by the actor playing this awful man, who just can’t help but break the fourth wall, smirking at him ridiculously calling a woman in the movie they’re watching together a slut. The same actor, Majd Mastoura, plays all the men in the film, bluntly if effectively reminding you of the regenerating specter that haunts the women throughout.
By the time Four Daughters arrives at the image of three of the sisters hovering around one dressed in a hijab, it seems to be moving away from Olfa to modern Islamic womanhood as its foremost subject. The film’s political intent initially seems sound, but there’s a bit of a lingering queasy feeling due to it strategically building up the revelation that ISIS is involved. The collection of archival news footage weaved into family melodrama makes it seem like the film bites off more than it can chew.
To answer if the meta-fiction risk pays off, though, perhaps a bad faith argument will say it’s a lot of fancy decoration for what’s ultimately a statement that generational trauma exists. The final shot is a bit of a maudlin plea to the audience, unfortunately something I could see coming from a mile away and making Four Daughters exit on something of a sour note. Yet for proving compelling over most of its runtime, one can’t ignore the film just for faltering in its final stretch. You just wish it didn’t feel like it might be betraying its subjects a little.
Four Daughters opens on Friday, October 27.