Not rated, but the movie is about rape, murder, terrorism, and religious extremism. It's also just a very upsetting movie for many reasons. Most of this blog will be me belaboring these points. There's some physical abuse that is talked about quite a bit, but it also oddly isn't part of the story directly. Regardless, it's pretty brutal as a movie.
DIRECTOR: Kaouther Ben Hania
I'm going to have the unpopular opinion on this one. I hate to be that guy. It's almost impossible to gripe about a movie that has an important message. The message here is so important. The movie is about the dangers of fundamentalism and I'm here for that. But I'm also writing a film blog about the quality and practices of the film. For that, man alive, I wish I didn't have to write what I'm about to write.
First of all, I have to confess something that may taint my frustration with the movie. The subtitles on the film were slightly off. I don't know what causes this. Is it Amazon itself? Is it just a weird sync issue that is happening with the moment or is it something that the production company who released this movie did? I don't know. I wish I could be more open-minded about the movie keeping this in mind. It's just that there were times when I didn't know who was saying what and it was frustrating for me. That's not the crux of my frustration with this movie. But I can tell you that it did kind of dogpile an issue I was already having with the movie.
I hope someone agrees with me on this one, but did the movie feel unnecessarily cruel? In an attempt to do something different with a topic that apparently has been covered in Tunisia, Four Daughters has the actual people who were involved with the events that the movie discusses reenact the events that caused them so much trauma. At first I thought that this was cool. There had to be a reason why they got the actual people to act out events alongside actors that portray the girls' mother and sister. (Olfa, the mother, played herself until it got too emotional, and then she was replaced by an actress.) From the beginning of the movie, we knew that two of the girls were no longer with the family. I'm going to get spoilery so just watch out. The movie really heavily implies that the two other girls, Ghofrane and Rahma, had died somehow. The story starts off with this story of an abusive husband and father and that he was somehow going to beat these girls to death or something. Then it turns into another dude, also played by the same man (for some reason, all of the men were played by one guy). We thought that guy, who was abusive and a murderer/rapist would have killed them.) The big reveal was that the girls are still alive, but in prison for becoming radicalized terrorists.
The story of the four daughters needs to be told. I won't deny the value of this tale, even taking the twist into account. I know that a lot of people liked the twist. I think it's fine. The problem I have is the correlation between the conceit of having this be a documentary about making a documentary and the reveal of what is happening in the movie. One of my students just asked me to Google Piece by Piece, an upcoming biopic about the life of Pharrell Williams. It's going to be made in Lego...because Pharrell likes Lego? Listen, this movie hasn't been made and I am probably going to give it a chance. But doing cool things just to do them detracts from the story happening here.
But the bigger takeaway is that the whole thing just seems mean. Maybe it is done because the story itself is not that long, so we have to have all of this footage of actors interacting with their subjects. (Oh great, I realize that my next blog is actually going to be May December, a very similar idea). The footage that the actors have with the subjects creates something interesting. (This is me giving credit where it is due.) The real girls seem to almost have a sisterly relationship with these actresses. They so want to see their long absent sisters in these girls that they laugh and cry with them. That's nice. I even like the actress who is playing the mother calling the real mom out on her crimes. That's all part of the documentary. It feels a little reality show, but some of those moments are actually pretty important to the story.
But these are girls who went through real trauma. The movie is aware that it is crossing a line. The male actor, who is playing the rapist in the scene, feels really uncomfortable with how the scene is playing out with one of the real victims of rape and stops the scene. He asks that is concern not be filmed, so he goes off camera. While he did the best thing in that situation, that still gives the movie what it wants: controversy. Golly, it seems like they want these girls to break down and cry on camera constantly. I'm a guy who will watch true crime documentaries and listen to true crime podcasts. I mentally think that they are pretty icky by format. After all, someone is listening to real tragedy for entertainment. I don't deny that's pretty gross, but there's a degree of altruism in the format. The idea is that the victim has a chance to be heard and receive some justice. Those true crime stories ask some hard hitting questions. Sometimes they cross over a line, but I always feel like there is at least a line drawn in the sand.
When the actors feel like they are manipulating perfectly fine people is there really a moral good that is happening? I think Four Daughters might affect Americans more than Tunisians is because the story is new for us. But if you are sitting in the writer / director's shoes for this, people know this story. This feels like shock value storytelling.
It's not to say that there's nothing good in this. I've teased this a little bit, but there is something fundamentally human about the whole thing. The two surviving girls, Eya and Tayssir, have this light about the whole thing. They, luckliy, see elements of this documentary as a means to talk about woes that have come their way both from the actions of their sisters and with the tyranny of their mother. One thing that seems pretty clear is that this is a loving family, but I don't want to just leave it at that. The family unit is fundamentally toxic. One of the recurring motifs of the film is Olfa flying off the handle. Now, I'm making a lot of judgment calls as an American. Part of me can't help but see some of the cultural practices that Olfa and her family deal with as backwards. But there's even an awareness that Olfa regularly takes things too far. There's a scene where Ghofrane goes goth (I want to talk about that scene a lot) and shaves her legs. Olfa, upon discovering this, beats her for hours. Olfa, in the present, knew that she did something wrong. But on camera, there's almost an epiphany for how damaging that action was.
Honestly, the stuff where Olfa becomes aware of what a problem she is gives the movie some value. Olfa seems wildly uncomfortable with some of the testimonials that her daughters give her. It's interesting because, through news footage, we see how young the two girls were when the events took place. Because the events that the documentary is describing took place oh-so-long ago, these are girls with different philosophies and a different degree of agency than what they had before. These confrontations are almost the price of all the trauma. But the crazy thing is, even as I write that, I realize that it didn't have to go down that way. I seem to be harping on this, but I don't like that I'm watching people probably undoing years of therapy just so a documentary can win an Oscar. It's really weird.
The goth scene? There's no way it went down like that. There's no way Ghofrane and Rahma were jamming out the way that they were and Olfa just came in beating them. I get the importance of bringing up the goth stuff. Ghofrane and Rahma were desperately looking for a counter-cultural identity and they totally became goths. I'm just saying tha the scene we saw was absurd. It felt like it was made by someone who scoffed at goth culture and treated it with such simplicity that it became silly that they ever dressed that way. I'm going to be honest. A lot of those reenactments seemed pretty ham-fisted. I wanted to be moved by what was happening, but it felt like a Lifetime movie at times. Again, everything in this needed to be said. I just didn't like how it was said.
I guess I don't have too much more to say about this movie. I know that I'm the loner who didn't like it. It was just so frustrating knowing that this was almost just traumatizing women who were doing their best to cope. Sure, they get some surrogate sisters and that was great. But I don't know why this had to border on abuse to make the documentary work.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.