Having seen Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun (Les filles du soleil) I wish I bore better news. A sparse and bleak film about the horrors of a group of Kurdish women fighting against Isil, it never finds its footing and stumbles around its characters aimlessly. Two stories of two women that, while they are told together, never feel of one whole.
The film is hobbled by its myopic focus on the head of the group Commander Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani). I say hobbled because it is so concerned with Bahar that all other characters fall to the wayside. Farahani is a great talent and can easily anchor a movie. But Girls of the Sun is populated with a great many characters few of whom mean anything to us, aside from Bahar.
The exception is Marie Colvin (Emmanuelle Bercot). Colvin shadows the women as they try to take back a hill to the west. A seemingly simple task, except the leader of the men seems to be waiting less for the perfect moment to attack and more on the American air strike he was promised. The women are furious, they are ready to fight and have even come up with plans to take the hill.
So the women must sit and wait. All the while Husson develops an all too predictable rhythm. Colvin and Bahar talk, reveal a tragedy from their past, and then part ways. They will meet again, share a moment of tenderness and the screen will fade to black.
The next scene will be a flashback. The flashback will undoubtedly show us some unspeakable horror that has happened to Bahar or allude to the tragedy. Fade to black. Cut back to the present. Repeat.
The repetition robs the film of any real tension. Predictability is not in of itself inherently bad. Except Husson, who also wrote the script, is embarrassingly literal. We spend time with these characters yet we really don’t know what makes them tick—aside from Bahar. And even she remains somewhat a mystery.
At one point during one of the flashbacks, we see Bahar’s sister drug out of the room. The two are being kept prisoner. It’s meant to be an emotional gut-wrenching scene, as obvious by the camera work and the anguish on Farahani’s face. But as the sister was dragged out of the room I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “She has a sister?”
Characters die, there’s a war going on, after all. But their deaths mean nothing because we don’t know their names or who they are. We only know Bahar and Colvin. Colvin with her eye patch and distant demeanor who sits back like a ghost, cooly recording everything she sees. She starts out as the narrator but disappears soon after Bahar arrives.
From how the story is told to us and how Husson has Bercot narrating both the beginning and the end, it feels as if the film is meant to feel like a report from the front line. At times the overwhelming expanses of the Iraqi desert seem to signal bone-deep helplessness.
It could very well be that’s Husson’s point.
The straight to the point manner characters have of speaking as well as the way the flashbacks are structured all reek of a matter of fact aura implying a style of reportage. But Husson will spend minutes having her cameraman Mattias Troelstrup gaze longingly at clouds of desert sand mixing with plumes of smoke from explosions. The two styles clash and create a sort of maddening tediousness.
When the women are attacked by an ambush they fight back and easily defeat them. One Isis member begs to be spared and taken prisoner. One of the ladies laughs, “You’re not dying today moron.” Bahar reasons the men must have come from a series of tunnels underneath them.
But the mines are filled with landmines. They take their new hostage and have him guide them underground avoiding the landmines. As they walk through the tunnels though, Husson and Troelstrup show them just walking. The whole point of having the guide is to avoid hidden mines in the ground, but at no point do we see the prisoner point at anything, say anything, or see the women do anything except walk single file.
During a flashback we see Bahar escape her slavers. It’s one of the rare moments of suspense, as Troelstrup’s camera hangs low and close with Farahani’s face as she and the other women and children crawl under window sills and sprint down flights of stairs. In a rare moment of cleverness, Husson tricks us by showing Bahar with a phone with a timer on it counting down. She’s been told she has a ten-minute window in which to make her escape.
We see the timer twice but it is soon forgotten. Husson has a better and more interesting ticking clock: one of the women is pregnant. The night before, her water broke and she’s been forced to hold the baby in. The pregnant woman’s pain, and her inability to keep up with the others, make her the more significant ticking clock.
The jailbreak scene is a highlight of the movie. A scene with built-in tension and drama as the pregnant woman struggles to make it thirty yards so she can finally have the baby. Husson and Troelstrup rise to the occasion. Though they stumble here or there, they largely keep the tension unbroken and the editing taut as they make their escape.
Colvin rides away into the sunset waving goodbye to Bahar. As the truck’s tires kick up clouds of desert sand, she narrates. She tells us of the thousands of women who were kidnapped, sold into sex slavery, and who have escaped, only to enlist and fight for Isis. Colvin goes on to tells us that the term “women” is misleading. Many of the women sold into sex slavery are in fact, mere girls.
The closing monologue churns the stomach in its forthrightness and the refusal to soften those facts. It is also the most powerful part of the film. Unlike the rest of the movie, it has the bite of truth without any varnish. Films are not about what they are about; they are how they are about what they are about.
Girls of the Sun lacks style about a topic it never fully engages with. In the end, we are left with the voices of the women as they shout “Women. Life. Liberty.” Haunting words if only because, while it may be chanted, the movie never shows us much of any of them. The result is a last line of haunting power, “ A hope that defies the human condition,” but a movie that does little to explore any of it.
Image courtesy of Cohen Media Group