Cannes 2023: “Les Filles d’Olfa”, six women on a set to tell a terrible family tear

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Supposedly, the new film by Tunisian director Kaouther Ben Hania, author in particular of Challat of Tunis (2014) and of The man who sold his skin (2020), should be listed as the second documentary entry in competition, after Youth (Spring), by Wang Bing. In reality, the case is more complicated, more hybrid. One could more accurately say that this film, which mixes reality and reconstitution, amateurs and professionals, was born precisely from the impossibility of making a documentary.

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Posing here in a preliminary way a story that we will only discover slowly in the film, the filmed family has experienced a terrible tear. Olfa, the mother, had four daughters. The two eldest are missing, who joined the Islamic State organization in Libya and tried to recruit the two youngest there, before the defeat of the movement threw the sisters, one of whom became a mother, in a prison where they still languish.

Establishing the failure of his first attempt to film Olfa in a classic documentary to evoke this atrocious story, Kaouther Ben Hania changes perspective. She develops a somewhat quirky device, making the family believe that this story will become a fiction, hiring three actresses – one playing a double of the mother, the other two, the missing sisters – to confront them with the three documentary characters, and filming the whole thing. Or six women on the set, in a stylized camera that resembles a laboratory experiment. Great good for him. Between the scenes of reconstitution and the constant dialogues between these six women, the word is freed, the hearts are overflowing, the emotion circulates.

An intimate and collective story

A story is also told, both intimate and collective. That, particular, of Olfa, monster woman both victim of violence and redistributing it on her children, woman more masculine and stronger than men, who raised her daughters in the obsession of their sexual emancipation and in the hatred of the male sex – it is interpreted in the film by one and the same actor.

The journey and the tragedy of the two eldest are thus gradually clarified, their absence becoming pure symptom, rooted in a general history of complete alienation of the feminine in an ultra-patriarchal society, and in the particular response that will be given Olfa, victim reproducing on herself and on her daughters the mark of male domination.

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