The 71st Melbourne International Film Festival delivers a dizzying range of contemporary cinema, with a focus on the spectres of authoritarian repression. By Anthony Carew.

Melbourne International Film Festival 2023

An elderly woman hunched over in the darkness.
Olfa Hamrouni’s daughter Eya Chikhaoui helps actress Nadim Cheikhrouha put on a niqab in a scene from Kaouther Ben Hania’s film Four Daughters.
Credit: Tanit Films

A sign in Kleber Mendonça Filho’s essay movie Pictures of Ghosts – an archival love letter to the architecture and the old movie theatres of his Brazilian home town, Recife – reads: “Cinema is the greatest entertainment”. Seen in the middle of the Melbourne International Film Festival – an overwhelming showcase of the breadth and scope of contemporary film – the statement rings true. Throughout the two-and-a-half weeks and 267 films of the festival’s 71st edition, it’s easy to revel in the power of cinema.

Especially when this year’s MIFF delivers a host of 2023 highlights. There’s Justine Triet’s incisive, Palme d’Or-winning interrogation of the theatre of the courtoom, Anatomy of a Fall, and Ira Sachs’s vicious love triangle, Passages, which avoids dramatic convenience at every turn. Christian Petzold’s tragicomic Afire – a whip-smart character study of a writer with a persecution complex who is determined to not enjoy a “working” beach holiday – sits alongside Celine Song’s bittersweet evocation of lovers that never quite were, Past Lives, a perfectly pitched portrait of intersecting histories that seems destined to be one of the most-beloved films of the year.

From time-bending adolescent anime screened for schoolkids (The Tunnel to Summer, the Exit of Goodbyes) and documentaries about right-wing scumbags where the director nearly dies halfway through (A Storm Foretold), to short films projected on the planetarium ceiling, varied retrospectives (Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo is a personal love), extended reality (XR) works, panel discussions and even paired dinners, the festival has a lot on its plate.

Given its plurality, trying to identify a single takeaway from MIFF is missing the point. But dig deep enough into the program and you start to see recurring motifs. An Indonesian servant tending to the daily routines and dirty deeds of a powerful general (in Makbul Mubarak’s Autobiography) and a ’90s Serbian teen confronting his family’s complicity in Communist horrors (in Vladimir Perišić’s Lost Country) feel like kin: both young protagonists grapple with the weight of history and the sins of a previous generation.

The spectres of the past, the scars of authoritarianism and intergenerational trauma linger through Asmae El Moudir’s The Mother of All Lies. Less a documentary than the documentation of an art project, it shows the filmmaker recruiting her father to build a model-sized replica of the Casablanca neighbourhood in which she grew up. The project is undertaken in the face of glowering disapproval from her grandmother, Zahra, an embittered, dictatorial matriarch who has banned photographs and mirrors from El Moudir’s family home.

The Mother of All Lies begins with El Moudir recounting a childhood trip to get an unsanctioned photograph taken of herself. She is now building the model to give her memory a tactile form. As her parents and old neighbourhood residents are roped into the project, its true purpose is revealed: this was a key area in the 1981 “bread riots” of Morocco, in which poor protesters were murdered and imprisoned by state police.

The Mother of All Lies grows beyond a personal record into a work of collective memory: a study of the tension between official and unofficial histories that challenges how dictatorial regimes erase history. We begin to understand the psychology of Zahra, whose destruction of the past is an attempt to escape trauma, an inability to face society and the self.

Kaouther Ben Hania’s Four Daughters – another film that shows a family coming together in cine-therapy – is one of the standouts of MIFF. The Tunisian filmmaker has worked in both documentary and fiction, and her narrative features, such as the brilliant Beauty and the Dogs in 2017, are usually based on true stories. At the nexus between fact and fiction, her latest picture – a follow-up to the 2020 Oscar-nominated satire The Man Who Sold His Skin – is a blend of role-play, theatre and documentary that explores the notion of truth.

Four Daughters tells the tale of the titular Chikhaoui siblings, who were raised by their mother, Olfa. In an introductory voiceover, Ben Hania tells us the two eldest daughters, Rahma and Ghofrane, “were devoured by the wolf”. The film, and its unique approach, is built on their absence.

Ben Hania recruits two actors (Nour Karoui, Ichraq Matar) to play Rahma and Ghofrane, and the two younger daughters, Eya and Tayssir, play themselves. Olfa talks candidly to camera throughout and occasionally plays herself in re-enactments. “As I understand it, I’m like the character of Rose in Titanic,” Olfa beams, before Ben Hania clarifies that she’s definitely not. When sequences become too difficult or upsetting for Olfa, the actor Hend Sabri takes over.

The peculiarities of the project are revealed when Sabri first arrives to meet the family, and she discusses her role. “You will have to feel everything I feel,” Olfa tells her. “The suffering that I endured. The pain of separation. The anguish of waking up with the memory of their disappearance.” Sabri sees that notion as “unsettling” and worries about the emotional risks of becoming woven into the family trauma.

The back and forth between these two women, actor and subject, is often a conversation that speaks the film’s themes aloud. Sabri feels free to stand up for Eya and Tayssir during arguments with their mother or to criticise Olfa for her old-fashioned, repressive beliefs. There’s often humour in these exchanges, the outsider actor and younger sisters shaking their heads at Olfa’s backward ways and abundant hypocrisy. But in the narrative “past” acted out in Four Daughters’ theatre of therapy, the conflict between the mother and her children is far more destructive. Motivated by fear – of local gossip and judgement as much as of predatory male violence – Olfa rules with a strict hand. Her greatest terror is of her daughters being perceived as “whores”. Long before they reach adolescence, she sees their bodies as shameful objects of male desire that must be covered up and hidden away.

Olfa is a portrait of internalised misogyny, her vicious tongue conveying a taught contempt for the “lesser” sex. Her moralising, control and put-downs ultimately fail to protect her children and, instead, drive them away. Rahma and Ghofrane initially rebel in classic teenage fashion – Goth outfits, metal music, running around the streets, getting on the back of boys’ motorbikes – before they choose the ultimate rebellion and become religious zealots, drawn into the fanaticism of the Islamic State.

If you don’t know this is coming – the MIFF program guide, sadly, gives it away up front – it’s an unexpected turn that’s in keeping with Four Daughters’ thesis. Viewers may have otherwise assumed Rahma and Ghofrane became victims of male violence, murdered or abducted. Instead they’re victims of patriarchal rhetoric, seduced into the absolutism of the ideologue. There’s power in their act of defiance but also a sad acceptance of subjugation, as if their mother’s moralising has been taken to a dangerous extreme.

It’s the final horror that patriarchal society inflicts on the women Ben Hania is working with. Their family history – “it’s a very painful past,” Olfa laments – is filled with tales of forced marriage, abusive men, sexual violence, the scourge of religious orthodoxy, the judgement and laws placed upon women’s bodies. We bear witness to the potency of generational trauma. Through this cathartic act of dramatisation and documentation, of having a mirror held up to her life, Olfa ultimately realises she’s “repeated everything that [her] mother did” with her own children.

In raw video footage near the end of the film, we see Rahma and Ghofrane in prison in Libya. Ghofrane now has a daughter of her own, birthed and raised in prison – born, Olfa believes, under the “curse” that haunts the women of her family.

Their affliction isn’t a mystical curse so much as the patriarchal oppression that, after the rise of fundamentalist Islam in the wake of the 2011 revolution in Tunisia, hovers over all women in the country. Ben Hania, Sabri, Eya and Tayssir all hope that this project is a way of helping to break the destructive cycle of violence.

These women believe Four Daughters can be an agent of change. And the film itself – in the sway of the camera, the currency of told stories, the very act of its making – demonstrates their faith in the power of cinema. 

The Melbourne International Film Festival continues until August 27.


FESTIVAL Now or Never

Venues throughout Naarm/Melbourne, August 17–September 2

MULTIMEDIA Atmospheric Memory

Powerhouse, Ultimo, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until November 5

LITERATURE Canberra Writers Festival

Venues throughout Ngambri and Ngunnawal Country/Canberra, August 16-20

MUSICAL Mamma Mia! The Musical

Lyric Theatre, Meanjin/Brisbane, until September 24

MUSIC A Knight’s Tale

Perth Concert Hall, Whadjuk Noongar Country, August 18-19


VISUAL ART Brett Whiteley: Eternity is Now

Art Gallery of NSW, Gadigal Country/Sydney, until August 13

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "True stories".

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