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Film Reviews: Four Daughters & Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Arts Review2024-1-26By: Marc Glassman

 

Fascinating Feminist Films

Four Daughters & Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

By Marc Glassman

 

Four Daughters 

Kaouther Ben Hania, director & script

Starring: Olfa Hamrouni, Eya Chikhaoui, Tayssir Chikhaoui, Nour Karoui (Rahma Chikhaoui), Ichraq Matar (Ghofrane Chikhaoui), Majid Mastoura (the men), Hend Sabri (Olfa Hamrouni)

 

The compelling hybrid documentary Four Daughters by the Tunisian woman director Kaouther Ben Hania has just received an extraordinary accolade: it’s been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary. The film is already the co-winner of the prestigious L’Œil d’or, le prix du documentaire—Cannes (The Golden Eye, The Documentary Prize—Cannes), so an Oscar would give it an extraordinary double in Cannes and Hollywood, something that has never happened to a doc before. In addition, Ben Hania previous film, The Man Who Sold His Skin, was nominated for an Oscar in 2021, which makes her the first female Arab director to be recognized by the Academy twice. So, it’s fair to say that Four Daughters is getting considerably more attention than it would normally receive, which is a good thing for a smart, challenging film. 

Four Daughters mixes the personal and the political in a contemporary tale set in Tunisia. Ben Hania’s film concentrates on the family of Olfa Hamrouni, who find themselves hugely influenced by the Arab Spring and the subsequent rise of ISIS. A fierce woman of limited financial means, Olfa had been trying to raise four daughters by herself while working as a cleaner after her relationship with her husband fell apart. 

As the film begins, we discover that two of the daughters have been “devoured by the wolf,” while the other two are squabbling but still at home. Olfa’s story, which had become national news in Tunisia, resonated with Ben Hania who decided to make it into a meta-documentary-narrative film.

In order to show how the winds of change have affected one family, Ben Hania hired actresses to play the two missing daughters as well as Olfa, because, she explains, some scenes will be too emotional for a non-actor to play properly. Of course, Olfa is in the film—she often dominates it—as are the two younger daughters, Eya and Tayssir, who have to act with women playing their sisters Rahma and Ghofrane. The results are fascinating as the actresses playing the older siblings bond with the younger women while the famous Arab actress, Hend Sabri, who is playing Olfa develops a critical, mentoring stance with the real woman and mother she is supposed to portray. 

We realize that Olfa was hardly a great mother and that the missing older girls had reasons for wanting to leave their home apart from a gradual interest in ISIS. In fact, one of the older girls changed from being a Goth into a religious fundamentalist after Olfa beat her brutally—presumably to knock some sense into her. Instead, as the two younger sisters point out, by becoming religious, Rahma and Ghofrane got the upper hand on their mother, who had to listen to their increasingly Islamic violent rhetoric. It can be argued, though the point isn’t insisted upon, that Olfa’s mismanagement of her maternal duties may have driven her older girls into the hands of ISIS.

The structure of the film is fascinating, allowing Ben Hania to explore the increasingly fractious family relationships in detail—and then quickly move out to look at the bigger picture about what was happening in Tunisia and the Arab world at the same time. As Olfa tells the story of her life and that of her daughters to Ben Hania and Hend Sabri, the family dramas are played out in a theatrical manner, moving from Olfa’s disastrous wedding night to her contentious relationship with her children. Sometimes, one of the daughters interrupts to offer a different version of the story–or the director finds a way to conclude a longish tale with a quick cut or another cinematic device. There’s a lot of freedom in the storytelling, which moves from Olfa’s chronology to the evolving dynamic between the actors and the real family. This allows for the audience to see how religious behaviour, Tunisia’s chaotic political and economic situation and familial role playing changed as the story unfolded.

By focusing on one complicated family dynamic, Ben Hania is able to convey how quickly Tunisian politics has changed from the time of the Arab Spring to its complex and quite vulnerable present day democratic reality. We discover that the older daughters aren’t dead, but their fates are inextricably bound to the radical shifts in Muslim society that are still taking place. Four Daughters is a film that tries to do too much but it does succeed in giving us a profound sense of what it’s like to try to negotiate lives in the shifting, violent but vibrant environment of contemporary North Africa.

 

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood

Anna Hints, director & writer

Ants Tammik, cinematography

Once you see the title of Anna Hints’ documentary, the first question is obvious: “are there lots of naked women in the film?” The answer is yes, but if you’re provoked, it’s out of outrage for what the women in this Estonian sauna have suffered in their lives. That’s not the fair response to a film, though, which is much more a celebration of that controversial term “sisterhood” than a critique of another well-worn word, “patriarchy.” This artfully shot doc makes you want to know even more about the women in the film, covered in sweat and chilly water, in intimate conversations with each other, rather than being immersed in anger at what they’ve had to encounter in their lives.

Smoke Sauna Sisterhood is starkly personal, with women sharing confessions about their lives in a perfect environment, without clothes or inhibitions, ready to say everything. With rare exceptions, we don’t see faces; instead, we’re placed in the shadowy world of a sauna. As the women sit in their large, intensely warm, wooden cubicle, they take the time to talk about happened to them, as daughters, mothers, sisters, lovers, wives and workers. We hear about love and loss, about rapes and affairs, about abortions and births, about terrible memories and beautiful ones. We see bodies and hear voices disconnected from individuals, offering up their laughter and pain, telling jokes and long tales, making us care about what has formed them into the women they are today.

Anna Hints has deliberately made a film without a protagonist. Instead, we’re invited into a culture, a social environment, where women share their naked lives with each other. She forces us to think about women as a collective, a group that encounters similar scenarios throughout their lives, from their girlhoods to old age. By refusing to give us their names and faces, Hints asks us to apply the same relevance to each intimate story, whether tragic or comic. Since we can’t match a story that moves us with an image, we must accept all of the tales we hear as being unforced and truthful. 

 Smoke Sauna Sisterhood was Estonia’s entry into the Best Foreign Film sweepstakes. Though it didn’t make the cut, being chosen as your country’s best film is surely an accolade. Over the past year, Anna Hints has won the best documentary director award at Sundance and was nominated for best writer at the top U.S. documentary competition, the IDA (International Documentary Award.) The film won Best Documentary at the European Film Awards, and garnered prizes at festivals in San Francisco, Tallinn, and Sudbury. 

It is one of the finest docs of the year and deserves to be seen and discussed from Toronto to Timbuktu.

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