French director Eva Husson isn’t one to shy away from danger. Her previous film, Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story) pretty much says all you need to know about her head-on filmmaking style. While watching Girls of the Sun, the story of a Kurdish female battalion who prepares to take back their town from extremists, viewers might expect a no-holds-barred account of life under the Islamic State regime. The production values were promising and a film tackling this kind of subject matter can appear to be bulletproof when it comes to criticism. While there were compelling elements of the picture, they were buried underneath unavoidable structural problems.
Girls of the Sun
Director: Eva Husson
Release Date: May 12, 2018 (Cannes); April 12, 2019 (USA)
The words ‘based on a true story’ should always be read as ‘proceed with caution’. I wasn’t fully aware of the Women’s Protection Units rebelling against IS, that the film portrayed, other than through patchy news coverage a few years ago. While many viewers may need to do a little reading around the subject, films like this for better or worse often form an integral part of our education on global current affairs. It’s timely, as well, that the last official IS stronghold was defeated a matter of weeks ago, coinciding with the film’s US release. It was estimated that around 30-40% of rebels against IS were made up of female combatants, so the women depicted in the film are based on real events and their stories deserve attention.
Yet for Husson’s noble cause, I felt as though the feature itself fell short of its ambitions. For one thing, the point of view seems to shift dramatically. We’re initially introduced to the world of occupied Kurdistan by a middle-aged French journalist, Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot). She’s our way into a world that seems very closed off — stranded for three months at the Kurdistan border after arriving too late to pass, she’s in a state of limbo. Her isolation and state of listlessness seem extreme, until we discover a fully functioning computer nearby and she rejects a phone call from an ally. At once it seemed a little incongruous that she should be sat doing nothing when she visibly has contact with the outside world, but this early on I thought it better to give the film the benefit of the doubt and overlook what was perhaps a misjudged attempt to establish the character and setting.
A flight montage later, we meet a female battalion of rebels, who Mathilde seems to have a prior rapport with, though it’s not fully explained. Fronted by older-sister-figure Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani), the film was driven by the central aim to get the women to free Kurdistan, past the border and out of the regime. While this is achieved, a lot of the film relies on flashbacks, which become more and more prominent, each leading up to the present but taking up a large proportion of the film, pushing the runtime to almost two hours. I can see the device has been attempted by the director and it’s a useful idea, except it makes the non-linear story a little confusing and laboured. Flashbacks aren’t seamlessly integrated into the narrative and seem too signposted: it’s difficult to tell where we’re at in the narrative at any given moment as there aren’t many outstanding visual cues.
With Mathilde frontlining at the start and then the attention shifting to Bahar, the feature doesn’t account for the vivid, personal flashbacks from other women. In any kind of creative writing or screen direction, having too many points of view can muddy the piece when not explained fully. In this case I found myself expecting to follow Mathilde, for her to develop as a character and to more clearly document the events that take place. Instead, we abandon Mathilde, and the focus shifts largely an inexplicably to Bahar for most of the film, until a final conversation between the women right at the end. I couldn’t even tell you much about the rest of the women, other than their names and the fact that one became pregnant: they were left largely in the background, which was unfortunate given that there was scope to utilize them as individuals.
One thing that Husson injects the most passion into though, is a sickening look at IS and the way they treat women, through emotionally engaging scenes in which the dark framing and ominous nature of typecast criminals sees women held captive as sex slaves, their children abducted and taken to ‘lion cub schools’ where they are trained to become soldiers. I just found myself unable to suspend my disbelief when Bahar’s son is taken away. A lot of the plot feels patchy and bolted together, and even the significance of a character who appears later, meant to provide a crucial link to the fighters, is lost within the non-linear plot.
I can see what Husson has tried to achieve: the fight becomes not just an abstract national mission, but a personal vendetta for Bahar, a way of rescuing her captured son. Arguably it’s a cliché of war films — I tried to see it in the context of a Hollywood movie, whether her speeches seemed rousing enough or events were melodramatic enough to have fit the Hollywood mold of a war film like Pearl Harbour or Saving Private Ryan — this might have contextualized it and made it more relatable. Often the lines between fiction and reality are blurred and it feels consciously emotionally manipulative. To illustrate this point, I’ve never thought about the child actor dynamic before, but perhaps it’s strange for child actors to pretend their onscreen parent is real. Watching Girls of the Sun had me questioning this assumption, as if the events were too far-fetched, or the acting too transparent, to be credible, taking me out of the immersive film experience and putting me in a position to question these assumptions.
One scene that feels more authentic though, is that of an attack, where an IS fighter begs to be shot as a martyr. “You’re not dying today, you moron!” shouts Bahar. Another soldier’s phone rings, and one of the women answers – “Your brother’s dead and killed by a woman” – the ultimate insult, as Islamic combatants don’t believe they’ll go to paradise if they’re murdered by a woman. If indeed the whole film hasn’t acted as a critique of the regime, this short scene seems to encapsulate the medievalism of the Sharia legal system and the central aim of the film: to undermine the destructive ideological terrorism in place.
Some sequences, like a dance sequence between the women, shows spontaneous joy and it’s well choreographed, the minimalist piano score accentuating the bittersweet melancholy tone. I’d like to have seen more of this in the film, where the artistic vision of the feature marries the political purpose. Yet some parts seem incongruous: with daily fighting and shelling taking place, Mathilde seems out of place and unable to help, even – ludicrously – verbalizing the fact that she doesn’t have enough courage to join the fight. When she and Bahar talk about the nature of journalism and reporting, it feels far too self-aware. The film drawing attention to itself, giving credit for its work or at the very least trying to validate the purpose of making a film when the real impact seems to be on the frontline. It’s important to be aware of these things but I’m not sure the full intended impact of the film really makes it. As for Mathilde, by the end of the film I’m not sure I could tell you much about her. Is she courageous, has she grown? I can’t say I liked her character by the end or felt much compassion for her.
The film is circular, ending where it began, but even after all that had been depicted I have to admit that I lost my engagement towards the end. As much as I hoped to get on board with the film, I left feeling as though I’d been on less of an epic journey with these women and more of a script read-through. I can appreciate the framing device of Mathilde’s final voiceover, but the poetic tone seems all wrong. In fact, I was angry: she has no right to see beauty or reflect on how poetic life is when she’d done nothing useful in comparison to the women she accompanied. However, the voiceover acknowledges the reality of 7000 women (and even more children) kept as sex slaves, tortured and killed by IS. At least the message is clear: the values to be prized above all else are women, equality and freedom. I can’t say I enjoyed the self-indulgence at the end, but I could appreciate more fully the battalion of women to whom the film pays tribute and their stories.