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Film review: 'Girls of the Sun' directed by Eva Husson

Girls of the Sun

The latest film by French director Eva Husson premiered at Cannes, where Husson was nominated for the Palme D’Or, before moving on to TIFF and other film festivals. Girls of the Sun (‘Les Filles du Soleil’) is a war story of an unusual kind. Set in 2014 Kurdistan, it deals with Kurdish soldiers attempting to drive out the Daesh forces which have infiltrated their cities and to free some of the thousands of women and children were taken captive. Rather than present a conventional battlefield drama, the film follows a single, all-female battalion, made up mainly of women who had escaped imprisonment by the enemy. While military action is part of the story, the focus is on the women, their experience as captives, and their decision to volunteer as soldiers. The film alternates present-day action with flashbacks which reveal the individual women’s histories and explain their motives for joining the war effort.

Journalist Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot) is the first character introduced. She is embedded in the small group of female soldiers in order to cover the war from the inside, a difficult and dangerous effort but one she feels driven to. Her dedication to her often perilous work is first indicated by the black eye patch she wears; she lost an eye during a previous mission. The distinctive eye patch and her presence in Syria during this time period suggests that the character is based on the late (+2012) American war correspondent Marie Colvin, the subject of the recent film biography A Private War, starring Rosamund Pike as Colvin. Mathilde’s aspect of the story includes the near-obsessive dedication to her work, and the conflicts between it and her responsibility to her young daughter, with whom she is able to have painfully little communication while completing her coverage in Kurdistan.

The battalion’s captain is Bahar, played by highly regarded Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (Elly, Paterson, The Night Eats the World). Bahar is a strong leader, obeyed by her all-female battalion and respected by the male squadrons they work with. We learn that she once lived a very different and very happy life, with a loving husband and small son, which we see in glimpses of Bahar’s bittersweet memories. Alternating with scenes of the battalion’s training and strategy planning, flashbacks show Bahar’s and the other women’s past experiences. The Daesh invaders typically separated and shot each town’s men, detained the boys for reprogramming and military training, and took the women and girls captive, to be used as sex slaves or sold. The scenes of captivity, the systematic rapes and the occasional suicides, are painful but not maudlin, focusing on the way the women tried to keep up one another’s courage and look for ways to escape. Many did escape, but still more were never seen again, some of them having been sold abroad. Bahar’s little boy was among those taken for ‘lion cub’ training; the hope of one day finding him sustains her.

The film is low-key for a war story, devoting long scenes not only to the characters’ histories, but also to the women soldiers’ downtime, when they talk of matters other than war, sing or dance together, and allow themselves to relax, show their personalities, and indulge in cautious optimism. Their intense camaraderie, perhaps essential to their mental equilibrium under difficult circumstances, comes across beautifully; and it is particularly in such scenes that the well-managed camera work lets the visual aspects of the film, whether depicting ruined cityscapes or close-ups of faces, do the talking much of the time. There is a great deal of suspense as well, in the actual episodes of warfare, the hasty strategic planning under fire, and a tense scene of a mass escape from one of the Daesh prisons. The choice by Eva Husson, who also wrote the screenplay, to focus on the women as people first and soldiers second, rather than take the more obvious path of keeping the war in the foreground, is what makes this film special. A sometimes meandering but generally forceful and perceptive script, and a strong ensemble cast bring these women’s experience effectively to life.