The Daughters of Olfa: Audacity Rewarded (review)

The Daughters of Olfa: Audacity Rewarded (review)

Kaouther Ben Hania recounts the disappearance – its causes and its consequences – of the two eldest daughters of a single Tunisian mother in a hybrid film, breaking the boundaries between documentary and fiction.

Update July 4, 2023: Two months after the Cannes Film Festival, where it was in competition (but unjustly absent from the prize list), Olfa’s Daughters hits theaters this Wednesday. The film by the Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania seduced us a lot during its presentation on the Croisette.

Article of May 21, 2023: This is a news item that hit the headlines in Tunisia a few years ago. Olfa, single mother of four daughters, one day saw her two eldest suddenly disappear. “They were devoured by the wolf“, we learn, as mysteriously as modestly, in the first minutes of this film that Kaouther Ben Hania (nominated for the 2021 Foreign Film Oscar with The Man Who Sold His Skin) wanted to devote to this story or more precisely to this singular family, rich in contradictions, carrying within it as much love as violence.

And with an extraordinary family, cinematographic treatment like no other. A documentary certainly nourished by the confidences of Olfa and her two youngest daughters but within which two actresses embody the missing sisters and a third, Hend Sabri (Noura dream) interprets Olfa during certain re-enactments that are too emotionally heavy to (re)live for her. A hybrid project, as eminently puzzling as it is damn ambitious, a thousand miles from a banal docu-fiction, including behind the scenes of filming, the famous behind the scenes say as much as the words and the looks in front of the camera.

In such a project, the risk is obviously great that the concept crushes everything. From the first minutes, we understand here that it will not be. That this singular form conversely marries as closely as possible its subject and those who compose it. Starting with this mother who, by raising her daughters alone with the anguish that they will become prostitutes, has surrounded them with a love that is certainly absolute but so ultra possessive that it flirts more often than not with a certain moral violence. By these men who cross his life (interpreted by a single actor, a brilliant idea which testifies to the interchangeable side of these) and the very physical violence, they, that some have subjected to his children in the secrecy of a room. What is said, what is told breaks your heart but it is the device which, by creating a certain distance without damaging the word, makes these confessions, these exchanges bearable for the spectators that we are, which prevents any voyeurism. Which allows you to mix tears and bursts of laughter without anything seeming out of place, off topic

The force of what is playing on the screen is such that we almost forget even the center of what is playing there – why the two sisters disappeared – so Olfa’s Daughters, through the particular case of this mother and her four daughters, embraces the history of an entire country, Tunisia, from the dictatorship of Ben Ali to the Arab Spring through the rise of Daesh. And like his formal process, intimate confidences and political and societal bearing are one, linked in the tragedy that struck Olfa and his family, in the fate of these sisters – which we will obviously not spoil for you – but who leaves KO and torn with emotions when we learn what happened.

With Olfa’s Daughters, Kaouther Ben Henia celebrates the freedom of speech as a means of being able to continue to live and to rebuild oneself of course, but also to dig into subjects that make the headlines – the wearing of the veil, Islamic radicalization… – by putting words on the evils, by going to the end of the end of reality instead of rehashing the same hazy theoretical concepts over and over. It’s beautiful, it’s powerful, it’s overwhelming. For his first steps in the Cannes competition, Kaouther Ben Henia aims straight and hits hard.

By Kaouther Ben Hania. With Hend Sabri, Olfa Hamrouni, Eya Chikahoui… Duration: 1h50. Released July 5, 2023

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