Cannes 2018 review: Girls of the Sun (Eva Husson)

In August 2014, ISIS unexpectedly attacked Yazidi territory in the Sinjar Mountains in the north of Iraq. The attack completely surprised the 300,000 Yazidis living in the area. All men were massacred, while the women were taken to places like Mosul and Raqqa to be sold as sex slaves, forced into marriage, or simply tortured. Boys were sent to jihadist schools and taught to kill at as young as the age of three. In total, over 7,000 women and children were captured. Two years of captivity and horror followed, in which networks were formed to extract or simply buy back captives. Meanwhile, the Yazidi formed resistance combat units with the YPG (PKK forces armed by Syria) and the Peshmerga (Kurdish fighters in Iraq). Little by little, women started to also take up arms, notably women who were saved or had escaped from extremist captivity. Eventually an all-female Yazidi unit emerged, the so-called ‘Girls of the Sun’. Their battle cry: “They rape us, we kill them” (which gets points for effective and to-the-point messaging). They had a psychological superiority over their opponents: ISIS soldiers are convinced that if they die at the hand of a woman, they will not go to heaven.

It is this group of fierce women fighters that Eva Husson follows in the film of the same name, Girls of the Sun, although through the eyes (well, singular, since the character lost one eye in Syria already) of a French journalist called Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot), who is embedded with the group and assigned to its commander Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani). The back story of Bahar, shown in several flashbacks including a lengthy, thrilling account of her escape from captivity, is one that is shared by most of the women in her unit. Mathilde tries to get behind the reasons why these women take up arms, and as Bahar slowly opens up, Mathilde starts to realize just how significant a story this is to tell.

Because there is no doubt about that aspect: the story of Girls of the Sun is an interesting and inspiring tale, certainly in a time when patriarchies are shaking on their foundations. It is not a coincidence that 82 women from the film industry staged a diversity protest on the red carpet before exactly this film. And Husson realizes it is an important story to tell.

The problem is, she does not know how to tell it in any artistically interesting way, nor does she manage to get the message across other than in a long, heartfelt monologue by Bercot’s character that closes the film. It should be telling that the opening paragraph of this review providing the historical context is longer than the one that gives the synopsis: not a whole lot happens other than standard action scenes followed by standard dramatic scenes. What really drives these women is muffled, unfortunately, and we get to know none of the other Girls of the Sun besides Bahar. The rest of the unit are just faces in a crowd.

What Husson does prove though is that she can handle the type of film she has made, an almost Hollywoodized inspirational tale that is at times genuinely thrilling, while at others trying to pull a little bit too hard on the heartstrings. Some of the action scenes are tense affairs, including the aforementioned extraction of Bahar and two other women and children. It is a shame that sequences like this are often followed by maudlin emotional scenes between the survivors, in which composer Morgan Kibby feels it’s necessary to throw lots of strings in for dramatic effect. Girls of the Sun is the kind of film that would play well to the Academy: it’s inspirational, important, and brought in easily digestible form.

The only two characters who have any sort of definition, both Bahar and Mathilde are well portrayed by Farahani and Bercot, respectively. Especially Farahani, with eyes that can go from fiery to soft in a heartbeat, shows that she could be a contender for a Best Actress prize next weekend, should this jury want to reward Girls of the Sun. This depends on how receptive they are to the ‘girl power’ message that underlies the film, and how far they are willing to look past the unimaginative filmmaking that brings the message.