Carbon Arc Cinema review: Four Daughters

I am the Artistic Director at Carbon Arc Cinema, part of a group of programmers who choose the films we screen. This documentary was our season opener, but the winter storm forced us to cancel screenings. The positive audience response to the ones we were able to show prompted us to bring it back for another weekend. Saturday night is the final chance to see it on the big screen. The 6:30 show is sold out, but the 8:30 show still has tickets available. 

Written and Directed by Kaouther Ben Hania | France/Tunisia | 107 min | Carbon Arc Cinema 

This is an astonishing, somewhat harrowing film in both form and content. It’s the story of a mother, Olfa Hamrouni, and her four girls, who became infamous in North Africa. They grew up in Tunisia in a troubled household filled with abusive men, abuse that Olfa absorbed too and, in kind, passed on to her kids.

It’s revealed from the start that the two elder sisters have disappeared. We get moments from their childhood reenacted through actors playing those older girls, Nour Karoui as Rahma and Ichrak Matar as Ghofrane. This while the younger girls, now in their late teens, play themselves. Ben Hania casts renowned Tunisian actor Hind Sabri as Olfa in scenes where Olfa isn’t comfortable revisiting her own past.

The reenactments are intercut with mother and daughters explaining how the fiction compares to their memories. Sometimes they just sit around, talking about what happened with the actors. The mix of honest, verbal storytelling and the artifice, it opens up all the participants. It’s emotional for everyone from the start, and even with the meta quality to the storytelling, it never feels less than honest.

What’s astonishing is how the younger girls have processed the horror they went through without recrimination. Their mother’s choices were the source of so much pain when they were kids, but they all talk about it like it was a family curse, that no one is to blame because it was something inherited in their blood. It’s hard to get your head around how they’ve processed layers of trauma and can still find joy in each other’s company.

It’s the portrait of a group of women living in a society baked-in with patriarchal entitlement. The takeaway is that extremism is viral. What a terrifying possibility, like a contagious mental illness.

About the author


Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.