Majority of the world may still be nursing the wound of director Greta Gerwig of ‘Barbie’ fame being left out of the Best Director Oscar nomination nod, but there was a moment of reflected pride for Middle Eastern cinema lovers when Tunisian female director Kaouther Ben Hania snagged an Academy nomination in the Best Documentary Film category for her film ‘Four Daughters’ yesterday.
The much-anticipated Oscar nomination list was revealed on Tuesday evening. With this, Ben Hania holds the glorious distinction of being the first Arab woman to get two Oscar nods in her career.
Her first Oscar nod was in 2021 for her movie ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin’.
The Hend Sabri-starrer ‘Four Daughters,’ which enjoyed its world premiere at the 76th Cannes Film Festival and saw a standing ovation after its screening, also competed for the prestigious Palme d’Or. ‘Four Daughters’ is a stirring true-life account of Olfa Hamrouni, a Tunisian mother, who has to grapple with her two eldest daughters fleeing to Libya to join Daesh (Islamic State/ISIS). This docufiction was also showcased at the Red Sea International Film Festival in Jeddah last year.
“The trigger was in 2016, I was listening to a radio programme on which Olfa was a guest. She was talking about her daughters and I found it extraordinary. So I thought I would like to make a film with her ... I found all the themese that resonate with me like adolescence, motherhood, transmission from mother to daughter, trauma ...,” said Ben Hania in an interview with news channel France24.
'Four Daughters' received good reviews from critics from The Guardian and The New Yorker. The review posted in The Guardian described Ben Hania's film as a "surreal blend of documentary, memory, meta-fictional re-enactment and therapy."
It’s not Ben Hania’s first Oscar nod. In 2021, she was nominated for her movie ‘The Man Who Sold His Skin.’ Her feature film ‘Beauty And the Dogs’ was also selected as the Tunisian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film in 2017.
Over the years, Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki Ladak and Palestinian filmmaker Farah Al Nabulsi – both women - were nominated for their films including ‘Capernaum’ and ‘The Present’.
Ben Hania is up against documentary films like ‘To Kill A Tiger’, directed by Indian-born Canadian Nisha Pahuja. This socially-charged father-daughter documentary follows a determined Ranjit’s mission to find justice for his 13-year-old daughter, who was abducted and sexually assaulted by three men. Hollywood heavyweights like Mindy Kaling and Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel are the executive producers of the film that captures the unwavering determination of a father-daughter duo to seek justice in a society where support for victims of sexual assault and rape is rare and conviction rates for such crimes are critically low.
So who’s Ben Hania?
Born in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, Ben Hania is a prominent filmmaker known for her impactful contributions to cinema. Known for her socially-charged films, Ben Hania’s debut feature film, 'Le Challat de Tunis' (2013), blended documentary and fiction elements to investigate a real-life incident involving a man on a motorbike slashing women’s backsides in Tunis.
This unique narrative style set the stage for her subsequent works. 'La Belle et la Meute' (Beauty and the Dogs) (2017) further solidified her reputation. This film, based on a true story, intricately unfolds the harrowing night of a young woman attempting to report a rape, earning a spot in the main competition section at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival.
Another notable work from her career catalogue includes 'The Man Who Sold His Skin' (2020). It was Tunisia’s submission for the Best International Feature Film category at the 93rd Academy Awards. The film explores the story of a Syrian refugee who agrees to have a Schengen visa tattooed on his back as a living piece of art, tackling themes of migration and identity.
Her work often delves into gender inequality, women’s rights, and the struggles faced by refugees. Her films often provoke and trigger dialogues around critical and grim social issues.