It is rare to get a glimpse into the inner lives of those who join the harsh, nihilistic world of ISIS. It’s even more rare – almost impossible – to understand the women who have given up their freedom and disappeared under the shroud of niqab.
It is a life of poverty and the strictest Islamic discipline. A life of marginalization from the world and one where violence is a constant theme. And a life utterly cut off from family.
It is through this latter keyhole that “Four Daughters” (“Les Filles d’Olfa”) director Kaouther Ben Hania peers into in an unusual verite docu-drama about the shattering of a family when two daughters join radical Islam.
Tunisian mother Olfa has four daughters, all beautiful. We meet two of them, Eya and Tayssir, now in their 20s, dressed in jeans and t-shirts, who are joined by two actresses who play their missing older sisters, Rahma and Ghofrane.
Ben Hania, a Tunisian director whose last film was the Oscar-nominated “The Man Who Sold His Skin,” slowly allows the story of this family to unspool, starting with Olfa telling her own tale of marriage, abuse and divorce. The director’s technique has actors playing Olfa and her husband in scenes of marital discord – the awful wedding night where she refuses sex and ends up in a fistfight with the groom – but lets Olfa herself tell it in tight closeup. Olfa is confessional and full of regret. How did she lose her daughters?
The actress who plays Olfa questions her about her choices, why she was so aggressive with her own daughters, and how it drove them away from her. They reveal how the country’s cultural norms led Olfa to perpetuate severe control of her girls, who were full of love, laughter and all the desires of young girls everywhere. Tayssir rebelled and became a Goth. Rahma and Ghofrane went the other way, into Islam.
Slowly we learn that the Tunisian revolution in 2010, part of the Arab Spring which toppled longtime president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, led radical Islam to gain a toehold and some popularity.
In a mind-bending scene, Eya and Tayssir describe the moment when the eldest sister Ghofrane came home after meeting an inspirational imam and put on the hijab. Then her sister Rahma did – not just a headscarf, which their mother already wore, but the entire covering, a black shroud including the niqab, where only their eyes showed. Not even the outline of their shoulders would do.
The younger sisters tried it too. “It was fashion!” insists Eya, explaining this as a teenaged gesture of independence from convention.
But what a gesture of rebellion – to give up all their freedom. From there, Rahma ran away to Libya and married the head of ISIS (known as “Daesh”) there. Ghofrane also fled and joined her. In panic, Olfa took her remaining younger daughters, teenagers, and put them in a reeducation center where slowly they backed away from radical Islam.
The family never heard from the older sisters again, except after the United States bombed the camp where they lived in Libya, killing Rahma’s husband. The two older sisters appear on news reels, under arrest. And one has a daughter. Ben Hania allows these shocking developments to drop into the story late, framing the entire tragedy with the perspective of world politics.
“Four Daughters” takes us into the intimate, inner circle of family ties to tell a larger story of our time. The pain is personal, and the impact is global.
Ghofrane and Rahma are serving 16-year prison sentences in Libya, we learn. Rahma’s daughter is being raised in prison with her.