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CANNES 2023 Competition

Kaouther Ben Hania • Director of Four Daughters

"It was interesting to bring actors, like mirrors, face to face with real characters"

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- CANNES 2023: The Tunisian director, in the running for the Palme d'Or for the first time, explains her unique approach, which blurs the line between documentary and fiction

Kaouther Ben Hania  • Director of Four Daughters

After Challat of Tunis [+see also:
trailer
interview: Kaouther Ben Hania
film profile
]
(ACID Cannes 2014), the documentary Zaïneb Hates the Snow [+see also:
trailer
film profile
]
(out of competition at Locarno in 2016), Beauty and The Dogs [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Kaouther Ben Hania
film profile
]
(Un Certain Regard at Cannes 2017) and The Man Who Sold His Skin [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Kaouther Ben Hania
film profile
]
(Venise Orizzonti in 2020), Turkish Director Kaouther Ben Hania is for the first time in official competition on the Croisette, at the 76th Cannes Festival, with Four Daughters [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Kaouther Ben Hania
film profile
]
.

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Cineuropa: How did you arrive at this hybrid style of documentary and fiction?
Kaouther Ben Hania : It was a long process because I started shooting a documentary in 2016 that explored the life of Olfa and her daughters. But I quickly realised that I couldn't do that because what I was interested in was already in the past. How to bring this past into the present and how to analyse it? Thinking about the clichés of reenactments in documentary, I thought that maybe I could use these clichés but in a different way, by hacking them in a way. In my fiction films, I'm always fascinated by the number of questions the actors ask me about their characters, so I thought it might be interesting to bring actors, like mirrors, face to face with real characters. This takes the actors out of their comfort zone because they are not facing scripted characters, but real people. I wanted to film these interactions, scenes where the real characters direct the actors by telling them what to do, and that it was also Brechtian with distance: you are in the scene, outside the scene, you think about the scene, etc. Once this idea was well defined, I knew I could start the real shooting.

How much of it was improvisation?
I wrote a script that wasn't really a script. Because I knew a lot about Olfa's life and she had told me about her past. I had identified the interesting moments for the film and I wrote small scenes, just to structure the shooting, to know what to do when we were on the set. But I left those scenes open to experimentation. I let the actresses and the real characters interact and I shot. The actors themselves weren't really acting, they were bringing their experiences. So it's a documentary about Olfa and her daughters, but also about the process of acting. With this mix, I intended to make a recomposed family cinema, but they helped me a lot, from the scene of their meeting, because Olfa and her two younger daughters were struck by the resemblance of one of the actresses to one of Olfa's two eldest daughters. A kind of sisterhood was born.

The film deals with the violence that is passed on from generation to generation.
Olfa even talks about a curse. She does to her daughters what her mother did to her. It is universal: we pass on our traumas to our children without even realising it, unconsciously. Coming from a very rough social background, Olfa says she had to cut her hair, become a man. In a sense, she is patriarchy incarnate, oppressing her own daughters. It is because of her contradictions that I wanted to make the film.

How did you create this incredible spontaneity of young sisters to talk about their bodies for example?
I had known them for years when the shoot started and I knew almost everything about them. I was also fascinated by their way of speaking. They are bold and they are really good storytellers, just like Olfa. They are also very brave because they were a bit afraid at the beginning that the film would open up their wounds, but then they insisted on doing so. I was also surprised by a lot of things, especially when they tell very hard stories with laughter: there is a very strong desire to live. It was an emotionally challenging shoot but it worked.

What about the representation of men in the film?
I wanted to focus on the female characters and I felt that the men in their lives had more or less a similar profile to each other. That's why they are played by the same actor. I wanted to simplify as much as possible because what interested me was the introspection and what becomes a therapeutic journey. There were moments when I was no longer in control. I asked myself questions, I wondered if I was going too far.

Do you think that the film gives a fresh look at Arab women?
I know the clichés about Arab women because I am confronted with them most of the time. But my main goal as a director is to show the complexity behind the clichés and to create a link with the universal. It's a mother-daughter relationship and we all know what that means, and teenage girls' stories what we all have been.

The film nevertheless reveals the impact of Tunisia's recent history on their lives.
That's true. It was a huge change because we went from dictatorship to a kind of democracy. Olfa herself is making her own revolution at that time: she divorces, one of the girls becomes goth, a boyfriend appears, etc. But this freedom is followed by a comeback of what was repressed. In Gramsci's famous formulation: the old world dies, the new world is not yet here, and in between the two, the monsters emerge. This is true for many great historical moments and it has been and still is the case for Tunisia. It is in this context that Olfa's daughters grew up.

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(Translated from French by Margaux Comte)

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