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A Tunisian mother lost 2 daughters to ISIS. 'Four Daughters' delves into how

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Tunisian mother Olfa Hamrouni's two eldest daughters disappeared almost a decade ago when they were just 16 and 15. They left their home and went to neighboring Libya, where they joined the violent extremist group the Islamic State. In a quest to get them back, Olfa went public with her story, begging for help to get them returned and to stop her two youngest girls from following in their footsteps. It was then in 2016 that I met Olfa and her youngest girls, Eya and Tayssir.

OLFA HAMROUNI: (Through interpreter) In 2012, we never even heard of ISIS. I thought my girls were just learning from a local preacher at a prayer tent.

FADEL: There she is describing how her girls were brainwashed. Today, these two young women, her mother and their family's story is at the center of a genre-bending film called "Four Daughters." The documentary has professional actors portraying the two eldest daughters, who are currently in prison in Libya, and acclaimed Tunisian Egyptian actor Hend Sabri alternates in the role of the mother with Olfa Hamrouni herself. I spoke with the writer and director of the film, Kaouther Ben Hania, after it was nominated for an Oscar for best documentary film, and I started by asking her why she chose to tell this story.

KAOUTHER BEN HANI: Like many Tunisians, I wanted to understand why...

FADEL: Yeah.

BEN HANI: ...Why two young girls decide to go through this path. And I realized that to understand, I have to do a movie. So I contacted Olfa, and we started there. And then we spent years and years together.

FADEL: How did you land on this format where you had actors playing the older daughters, but you also had a stand-in in case the scene was too difficult for Olfa so Hend Sabri would jump in? I mean, how did you come up with this format?

BEN HANI: Because I quickly understood that if I want to understand why, the origin of the tragedy or the origin of the new story, I have to go to their past with them to revisit their past. So this was how I understood that I needed more than a conventional fly-on-the-wall documentary.

FADEL: The Egyptian Tunisian actor Hend Sabri plays Olfa Hamrouni in some scenes, the mother, and it's moments that the mom might find it too difficult to play herself in a scene, like her wedding night, like the first time she's reunited with her daughters that are actually actresses playing her daughters, both very difficult. But in those scenes, you still see Olfa Hamrouni stay in the frame, the mom, sort of directing Hend as Hend is playing her.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: I wanted to ask about the relationship between these two women and how it evolved during the film as Hend plays Olfa in front of Olfa.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

BEN HANI: Yeah, and for an actress like Hend, she's, as you said, well known.

FADEL: Yeah.

BEN HANI: She's a star in the region.

FADEL: Very famous.

BEN HANI: Here, she's like - it's a risk for her because she's out of her comfort zone. So she starts in the beginning of the movie saying that she will protect herself. She is a professional actor. And we see during the movie how at some point at the end, she's crying, and she's hugging Olfa because she understood all the complexity. Olfa is very flawed character. She's not a perfect mom. But she understood the complexity of the life of this woman. So it was very interesting to see very different women bonding together during the shooting. It was...

FADEL: Yeah.

BEN HANI: ...So fascinating.

FADEL: There's another scene where there's an actor that plays - basically, there's only one male actor in the entire film that plays every male character, from the dad to the mom's boyfriend to the daughter's boyfriend. You know, he's the stand-in for all men. And there is a moment, though, where he gets too uncomfortable to continue. And it's a very difficult scene in which the girls are very emotional, but they're ready to talk about it. And it's a scene about what their stepfather, their mother's boyfriend, did to them. So Majd Mastoura, who's playing the stepfather in this scene - or the mother's boyfriend in the scene - gets up and says, Kaouther, I can't continue. I'm not going to film. And Eya says, why? This will help me. This will help me work through it. Was there any moment in that scene where you thought, maybe this is too far? How do I create art from this pain without causing more pain? And I wondered if you struggled with that question.

BEN HANI: Yeah, it was my main obsession, and especially in this scene, she say this incredible sentence, pointing the meta documentary side, saying he's an actor. Tell him I'm just an actress. And this is our line I'm saying. So it's - tell him it's not my life so he can come back. And we were all confused and scared, me and the actor. And this little girl is there telling us how it's important for her to tell this thing.

FADEL: Is there anything that you would want the world to know about this story, as we talk about the film and for people who haven't seen the film yet, that they should know about the story of Olfa Hamrouni and her four daughters?

BEN HANI: I mean, I did this movie without prejudgment. I tried to understand, and I went through a journey of all the spectrum of emotion. The movie is funny. We laugh a lot.

FADEL: Yeah.

BEN HANI: The movie is so emotional. We cry. So I wanted to share all what I felt and all what I understood also with the audience. And I think the movie is not - the story of ISIS is only the tip of the iceberg.

FADEL: Right.

BEN HANI: All the movie till the end is about a mother-daughter relationship where any mother, any daughter can recognize herself in the movie. It's also about coming of age, which is a universal thing. So I think that the movie's success is because the movie is tackling very universal topic while being very Tunisian, very local at the same time.

FADEL: Tunisian filmmaker Kaouther Ben Hania on her Oscar-nominated film "Four Daughters." She says that Olfa is continuing to advocate for her oldest daughters to be returned home to Tunisia. They were just children when they joined ISIS, and now one is raising her own child in prison in Libya.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Leila Fadel
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Devan Schwartz
Devan Schwartz is an editor for NPR's Morning Edition. He is an experienced audio professional who, in addition to his work with NPR, has worked with such organizations as BBC, Slate, the New York Times, and various public radio stations.
Ana Perez
Ana Perez is an associate producer for Morning Edition. She produces and creates content for broadcast and digital for the program.