December 31, 2023 – A Tunisian woman, Olfa, mourns the loss of two of her daughters who ran away from home, and she worries about the future of her other two daughters in this hybrid documentary film.
Written and directed by Kaouther Ben Hania, this documentary consists mostly of interviews and reenactments of past events in the tumultuous life of Olfa Hamrouni and her four daughters, Eya Chikhaoui, Tayssir Chikhaoui, Rahma Chikhaoui and Ghofrane Chikhaoui. It is a movie filled with raw, powerful emotions.
In the reenactment scenes, actors play the part of the mother and her daughters, as well as others in the story of their lives. Nour Karoui, plays Rahma Chikhaoui and Ichraq Matar plays Ghofrane Chikhaoui. These are the two girls who ran away from home. Hend Sabri plays Olfa in some scenes she cannot handle emotionally, but she often tells her own stories as well.
Olfa's daughters Eya Chikahoui and Tayssir Chikhaoui appear in the movie as themselves and tell their own versions of the family's stories. They sometimes witness reenactments and comment on them, explaining how they felt when these events happened.
Olfa explains about her past, including her unhappy marriage to her husband. She tells how her home was under attack by men wanting access to the women inside when she was a young girl. She lifted weights and became strong. She cut her hair short and became, in essence, the man of the house to protect her mother and sisters.
This carried over to her marriage, where she refused to be bullied by her husband, and he eventually left. Revolution was in the air, the so-called “Arab Spring” which began in Tunisia in late 2010. The revolution caused the resignation of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, after 23 years in power.
Olfa had trouble adjusting to the change happening in Tunisia, and all over the world. Her daughters were using cell phones and one was even wearing Goth makeup, which some associated with Satan worship. At one point, Olfa became so angry at her daughter's behavior she beat one of her daughters so badly she feared she had killed her.
Olfa, caught between her conservative past, the future, and revolution in nearby Libya, including the growing influence of the Islamic State, which started in Iraq, a consequence of America's war with Iraq, and later it spread to Syria and beyond.
Olfa's daughters became radicalized by the Islamic State's influence, and eventually, Olfa and her daughters all started wearing niqabs, a kind of ultra conservative Muslim clothing that covers the whole body, leaving only a small slit for the eyes. It looks like a black ghost costume.
Two of Olfa's daughters became so radicalized by the Islamic State that they ran away from home, and the other two wanted to join them. Olfa had pleaded with authorities to stop her daughter Rahma from leaving Tunisia to join militants in Libya. Then she became famous for publicly criticizing governmental authorities for not doing what she asked.
At one point of the movie, Olfa mourns the fact that she seems to have turned into her own mother, and that this cycle of behavior seems to have no end. It seems like the tragedy of Olfa's family is not one entirely of her own making, but she certainly played a key part in it.
The role of women in Arab society can be greatly restricted. If this movie is any indication, it looks like the Tunisian revolution, combined with the Islamic State radically and quickly changed the level of social pressure on women to conform to new, restrictive, norms of behavior in Tunisia, Libya and beyond.
As the movie ends, the future of Olfa and her daughters is very much up in the air. There seems to be a lot more regret than hope for this broken family. This film provides a window into a world that is quite foreign to most of us in America, but it is a very powerful and important part of the world that we dare not ignore. This film rates a B.
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