France, Tunisia, Germany, Saudi Arabia


Between light and darkness stands Olfa, a Tunisian woman and the mother of four daughters. One day, her two older daughters disappear. To fill in their absence, the filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania invites professional actresses and invents a unique cinema experience that will lift the veil on Olfa and her daughters’ life stories. An intimate journey of hope, rebellion, violence, transmission and sisterhood that will question the very foundations of our societies.

Director's Statement

This project first began in 2016 while I was finishing ZAINEB HATES THE SNOW, a documentary which took up six years of my life, in which I filmed the life of a teenage girl. I heard Olfa talking on the radio about the tragic story of her daughters. Her story intrigued me and moved me. Here again, it was the story of a mother and of her four teenage daughters. Olfa fascinated me right from the start. I saw in her a very powerful character for film. She was the embodiment of a mother with all of her contradictions, her ambiguities, her troubled areas. Her complex, terrible story haunted me and I had a desire to explore it, to understand it, without knowing how I would do that.
I went through different stages. I started filming her with her two remaining daughters, Eya & Tayssir, to express the absence of the other two. I began to film them in 2016 and then again in 2017.
But something wasn’t working and I had many questions : How to revive memories without embellishing or changing them, without sugar-coating the truth? How to succeed in recapturing what took place and what is no longer there? How to face up to the truth of one’s own past years later? But the most problematic aspect for me was the way in which Olfa was playing a role. From the second I turned on my camera, she began to play a specific role. I had to stop filming because I ended up realizing that I was going to fall into the trap she was setting for me.
When I realized that what I had filmed was not interesting, I concentrated on my previous film without even knowing if I was going to go back to this project. Then I came back to it. I had greater perspective and I could see it more clearly. I now wanted to film Eya and Tayssir whom I had gotten to know on the various shoots. I realized that the best way to put Olfa back into the domain of reality and of her own memories was to make a documentary on the preparation for a fake fiction that would never see the light of day. Based on everything that Olfa had told me, I drafted a continuity involving Eya and Tayssir on the preparation of a fiction in which the actors would meet the real protagonists to better express what they had lived through.
Olfa needed to be confronted with professional actors. From now on, they would be the actors, not her. They would serve as eye-openers for Olfa and her daughters to help them to find their inner truth. I needed actors to play her absent daughters and I needed an actor to question her, to help her to understand some of the major events in her life. It wasn’t the reconstitution of the memories themselves that interested me but the exchanges between Olfa and her daughters to achieve this. My role in this film was that of director, guiding them, searching with them while Olfa recounted and analyzed significant episodes in her life in great detail. By asking her questions about specific details, and her motivations, Hend Sabri allows Olfa to reflect on her past without indulging her. If Olfa had remained alone with me, she would have just served up the same story, the same cliché, again.
Even if there are some fictional parts, the film is totally a documentary (and it won Best Documentary award “Oeil d’or” after its selection in Cannes Competition in 2023).
What was interesting to me, more than the reconstitution of the events, is the reaction of the actors and the protagonists. I asked the actors to behave as themselves, to feel free to react to what was happening and to question the protagonists. The scenes were not scripted. What I did is that I outlined concise descriptions of the pivotal moments and scenes that had shaped their lives and let room for improvisation.
I wanted a Brechtian element in my film, where it would be possible to act out the scene while reflecting on it at the same time. I wanted us to be able to go from real moments of acting to moments of reflection on what was being acted out. The line needed to become blurred because we spend our time acting in life and even more so in front of the camera. Since the early days, I’ve always enjoyed exploring the tenuous relationship between fiction and documentary. It is a common thread that runs through all my films.
Two films changed my relationship to cinema and inspired me: CLOSE UP by Kiarostami and F FOR FAKE by Orson Welles. Thanks to them, I realized that films allowed for a wide scope of experimentation. Kiarostami said that knowing what is true or false isn’t important. We can lie in film from the moment that we are succeeding in extracting a profound truth. That’s what counts! For me, the most important thing is to move the audience by revealing a deeper truth to them.
During the shoot, when I brought the team all together, I suggested that they write a collective constitution in which everyone could express what they didn’t like on a film set. Everyone needed to feel comfortable to enable Olfa and her daughters to make their journey together. What could be more delicate than spending time with these women who were exploring their inner selves and the most troubled parts of their lives in front of us! In order to create the ideal conditions, we put together a mostly female team. In short, we created the conditions for something that was therapeutic not only for them, but for the whole group. Everything that happened during this film shoot stirred up very strong feelings inside each one of us. Despite the complexity of the set-up, we all felt that something special was happening.

Cast & Crew

Directed by: Kaouther Ben Hania

Written by: Kaouther Ben Hania

Main Producer: Nadim Cheikhrouha, Abib Hattia, Thanassis Karathanos, Martin Hampel

Cinematography: Farouk Laaridh

Editing: Jean-Christophe Hym, Qutaiba Barhamji , Kaouther Ben Hania

Production Design: Bessem Marzouk

Costume Design: Anissa Ghelala

Make-Up & Hair: Anissa Ghelala

Original Score: Amine Bouhafa

Sound: Amal Attia, Manuel Laval, Maxim Romasevich

Cast: Hend Sabri, Majd Mastoura, Ichraq Matar, Nour Karoui

Nominations and Awards

  • European Documentary 2023
  • Documentary Selection 2023