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Reenactments and Reversals: The Plot Twist in Kaouther Ben Hania’s ‘Four Daughters’

By Winnie Wang

Tayssir Chikhaoui, Olfa Hamrouni, Eya Chikhaoui

Left to right: Tayssir Chikhaoui, Olfa Hamrouni, and Eya Chikhaoui in Four Daughters. Courtesy of Kino Lorber.

We first meet our protagonists seated together on a brightly lit set, their figures visible in the gap between a pair of dark curtains. Two hands come into view and clap together a film slate: Take One, Scene One. “In this film, I will try to tell the story of Olfa’s daughters,” declares director Kaouther Ben Hania, in a voiceover. “The two youngest, Eya and Tayssir, still live with her. The two eldest, Rahma and Ghofrane, were devoured by the wolf.” Loaded with poetic license, this phrase draws on the figurative to offer a cipher that holds the truth about their fates. Naturally, multiple possibilities come to mind, some more plausible than others: abduction, kidnapping, suicide, murder. This enigmatic recitation swiftly propels the story into the realm of intrigue, marking the beginning of a film that seeks to lure and evade, haunt and confront, by way of its cunning structure.

While the plot twist is more readily observed in narrative fiction, this conceit can be located across the documentary landscape to varying degrees of success in films such as Capturing the Friedmans (2003), Dear Zachary (2008), and The Imposter (2012). At times, this technique can effectively replicate the emotional journey of someone who is confronted with a shocking revelation, providing a valuable viewing experience that brings us closer to the protagonist’s interiority, as in Sarah Polley’s autobiographical Stories We Tell (2012). As a rhetorical strategy, the manipulation emphasizes the position of the documentary subject, reproducing their own feelings of surprise, confusion, grief, and anger to underline whatever the central argument of the film might be. Other works—Three Identical Strangers (2018), for instance—exemplify the use of plot twists for entertainment purposes, inviting viewers to experience thrill, suspense, and even pleasure at the expense of their subjects’ well-being. Shocking, traumatic, or disturbing events are devised as plot points and blatantly exploited to feed our appetite for salacious fare in an increasingly competitive media environment. 

Though dramatic structures from fiction have always extended to documentaries—from casting wildlife animals as heroes and villains in nature series to developing conflict and resolution through editing in verité films—certain narrative techniques carry additional valence when employed in nonfiction contexts. When “protagonists” and “antagonists” are real people, there are additional ethical implications in distilling their complex motivations and traits into character tropes. Plot twists, to some degree, rely on withholding information or misdirection, compelling the audience to invest in a particular reality for a sustained period before a set of facts is presented to straighten the narrative, unveiling an outcome intended to shock and provoke. A surprise ending can be wildly exhilarating and convincingly affirm the expression that truth is stranger than fiction, but it might equally betray the documentary genre’s objective to inform and present reality. 

Ben Hania is well-versed in the very real stakes of documentary form. After the critical success of narrative features Beauty and the Dogs (2017) and The Man Who Sold His Skin (2020), the Tunisian filmmaker returns to her nonfiction beginnings with Four Daughters, a hybrid documentary that skillfully shifts between modes, obliterating the division between fiction and nonfiction through inventive formal techniques. The film premiered earlier this year at Cannes, where it shared the documentary prize L’Œil d’or with Moroccan filmmaker Asmae El Moudir’s The Mother of All Lies, which similarly employs stylish re-creation strategies to make sense of family, tragedy, and memory in the absence of archival footage. For its extended involvement of actors in dramatic reenactments and its reflexive nature, critics have compared Ben Hania’s latest to the works of Robert Greene, Errol Morris, and Abbas Kiarostami, filmmakers who seamlessly incorporate narrative aesthetics and elements into reality-based projects. Intricately layered and political, the film has also been applauded for its ability to weave historical context into family life, to examine the thorny nature of storytelling and memory.

Inviting unreconciled pasts into the present, Four Daughters unfolds through an assemblage of interviews and reenactments. The temporal distinction that traditionally marks documentary restaging erupts, subjecting excavated memories to active, ongoing interrogation. Olfa’s missing daughters, Rahma and Ghofrane, are portrayed by actors Nour Karoui and Ichraq Matar, whom Ben Hania cast for their resemblance in appearance and behavior to their real-life counterparts. Olfa and her remaining daughters, Eya and Tayssir, perform as themselves, reproducing familiar words and gestures in a controlled environment. For Olfa, the emotional distance is doubly widened by Egyptian-Tunisian actor Hend Sabry, who is hired to step in when Olfa becomes overwhelmed during reenactments. These reenactments are not offered as substitutes for reality, but as a distinct process of reconstructing memories to form a textured patchwork of experiences that illustrates life under patriarchy as girls, women, and sisters in contemporary Tunisia.

In the first reenactment, Olfa revisits the evening of her wedding, describing the expectation to consummate her marriage to a man she finds repulsive. Sabry, dressed in a white gown and veil, recites her lines and gently resists the advances of actor Majd Mastoura, who plays Olfa’s new husband (as well as all other male roles in the film). Here, Olfa initially holds the responsibilities of a stage director, supplying feedback on Sabry’s performance and inserting details that surface during the rehearsal, but her desire to depict this particular memory with precision prompts her to spontaneously enlist in the scene as an additional character. Olfa repeats the treacherous words of her sister, who enters their bedroom and encourages her husband to complete the ritual despite the bride’s protests, compounding the distress of participating in a bedding ceremony with a violation of trust from a family member. The scene ends, however, in a surprising reversal: Sabry emerges victorious from the brawl with the blood of her husband’s nose on the gown, evidence that sufficiently satisfies the wedding guests outside. This kind of narrative development exemplifies the film’s labyrinthine construction, its propensity for secrecy and twists, while maintaining an elegant, unassuming exterior.

As more reenactments and interviews are conducted, we learn that Olfa has raised her daughters with deeply repressive—and often contradictory—beliefs surrounding gender and sexual desire. She is cruel, punishing, and quick to inflict verbal and physical abuse, yet devoted, protective, and ferociously loving, almost to the point of suffocation. She treats with heightened scrutiny her daughters’ hair, attire, conduct, and interactions with men: a pixelated snapshot of a knee crease innocuously captured on a cellphone sends Olfa into a rage, believing it to be an explicit photo. It is not difficult to understand why her daughters might seek independence as a result of this claustrophobic upbringing. For Rahma, this meant dressing like a goth, wearing black makeup, and listening to heavy metal music as a gesture of rebellion. For Ghofrane, it meant waxed legs, a boyfriend with a motorcycle, and her eventual adoption of the hijab in the aftermath of the 2011 Tunisian Revolution, which reversed former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s banning of face coverings.

Though Ben Hania defines a set of rules concerning the involvement of Olfa, her daughters, and the professional actors in the film, the events captured often dissolve the boundaries of dramatic reenactment, drifting into the territory of therapeutic or artistic exercise. As a performer, Sabry commits to her work, diligently studying her character’s motivations and speech patterns, but equally challenges Olfa’s abusive behavior and hypocrisy as a collaborator of the larger project. In one sequence, Mastoura, as their stepfather Wissem, becomes overwhelmed by Eya’s confrontation of his implied sexual abuse and exits the scene, but the cameras continue recording. Eya calmly describes an emotional catharsis derived from replaying this memory, while Tayssir, in tears, explains the importance of proving their victimhood to their mother. The process carves a space for healing that disrupts cycles of trauma and shame, yielding profoundly moving results for the participants. Yet moments like this also reveal the film’s investment in manufacturing sensational displays for its viewers, especially when not all actors and subjects are evenly afforded concern for their emotional and psychological safety.

Clothed in the trappings of a documentary, Four Daughters relies on dramatic structures more commonly employed by narrative films that hope to manipulate viewers with revelations and mystiques. The film consistently invokes reenactments. Shots are composed with captivating cinematic angles, music soars and swells with the rising action, glossy visuals smooth over each scene with decipherability. The eagerness to offer clarity across the film has one telling exception: the fate of Rahma and Ghofrane. 

Over most of the film’s nearly two-hour runtime, every time Eya and Tayssir convey heartache and grief at the loss of their sisters, they always frame their expressions with ambiguous language. It is not clear whether this is a product of editing or the sisters’ participation in the film’s conspiracy to conceal. From “the anguish of waking up with the memory of their disappearance” to “the pain of separation,” their choice of wording maintains ambiguity about whether Rahma and Ghofrane’s whereabouts are known or unknown, if the two are alive or dead, and the exact circumstances leading up to their vanishing. Even so, this kind of concealment lends itself to a form of legibility and narrativity valued in fiction films, enabling audiences of documentaries to register evocative memories, conventions, or ideas nurtured by previous viewing habits. In narrative dramas and documentaries alike, a plot twist can function as an alluring challenge, inviting viewers to solve a mystery, scrutinize the available clues, and anticipate the reveal. However, unlike its peers in the true crime genre, Four Daughters distances itself from the tired practice of neatly organizing facts and evidence, instead attending to the fragile interpersonal dynamics that shapeshift from scene to scene. 

In the final act of the film, a reenactment that deftly alternates between Olfa and Sabry reveals that Ghofrane left her job in Tunisia as a cleaner “to join the brothers” in Sabratha, Libya. Rahma, who will soon follow her sister, refuses to disclose Ghofrane’s contact information, leading to Olfa’s surrender of her daughter at the police station for Rahma’s allegiance to the Islamic State. Though Rahma proudly admits to jihadist leanings, a law officer releases her. With nothing else to hide, the film finally relaxes its opaqueness, giving way to an archival montage of media coverage that executes the twist: a news anchor reports that the sisters have been labeled terrorists for their involvement with Daesh; Olfa argues that the postrevolution climate established the conditions for religious indoctrination on a discussion panel; Eya and Tayssir recount stories of their older sisters being radicalized in a televised interview. The film concludes with text that explains that Libya sentenced Rahma and Ghofrane to 16 years in prison in 2023, though their family remains hopeful for their eventual repatriation into Tunisia. 

Here, the plot twist operates primarily as a tool for emotional provocation. Ben Hania organizes the film to build prolonged suspense, maximizing the emotional response when the fate of the sisters is revealed. This reorients the focal point of the documentary to a single event, despite the preceding interviews, reenactments, and stories that interrogate the complexities of womanhood, grief, and inherited trauma. Certain critics have contributed to the mythology of the film, referencing “bizarre twists and turns” or an “urgent puzzle” while withholding the reveal, not wanting to spoil readers with what they consider a pivotal moment. Eager to capitalize on the ending, other reviews have invoked “radicalization” and “ISIS” in their headlines, eye-catching terms loaded with connotations that implicate Muslim and Arab communities. While the filmmaker is not directing the film’s critical reception, Ben Hania’s exploitation of the plot twist encourages this kind of coverage, inspiring seductive titles and descriptions that will naturally attract a particular kind of audience.

In fact, the mechanism of the plot twist crucially hinges on its audience for successful execution. For local viewers who had watched the family’s national TV appearances in 2016 or were familiar with Olfa’s story—which, according to the film’s press kit, was commonplace—this film draws out the revelatory moment to little effect. For those who identify Ghofrane and Rahma’s absence from school and preference for the veil as warning signs, the sisters’ decision to join Daesh is not shocking but instead predictable, if not inevitable. With the ending spoiled, the film’s continued attempts to foreshadow become exhausting, even insulting, when the radicalization of the eldest sisters is finally established as the most worthwhile reason to remain invested. For Western audiences, however, the calculated obfuscation of truth in Four Daughters remains an intriguing narrative device, a formally ambitious and marketable plot twist tailored to elicit emotion and generate discussion.

When Ben Hania first started working on Four Daughters in 2016, she originally shot in an observational mode until she realized that the events that interested her most had already happened. Importantly, these attempts also revealed that the presence of a camera brought forth a performance in Olfa, who seemed to be conditioned to play the role of the grieving mother from previous media appearances. With the desire to surface “emotional honesty,” Ben Hania revisited the project with a new conceit during the pandemic: “a documentary on the preparation for a fake fiction that would never see the light of day.” The film’s interest lies not in carefully exploring memory but in extracting the performance of believability. Given that Four Daughters largely arrives at a penetrating narrative that complicates our understanding of Arab women and gender politics in a postrevolution climate for most of its runtime, the film’s ending instead bares a simplistic drive to sensationalize the sisters’ turn to Islamic extremism.

Winnie Wang is a writer, film programmer, and arts administrator based in Toronto.