The first thing we see in Eva Husson’s “Girls of the Sun” is a world enveloped in ash; all of the noise choked out by the thickness of the chaos. The atmosphere is apocalyptic. We are then shown a pure blue sky as a mushroom cloud from a bomb slowly rises up, as though devouring any trace of peace, even in the heavens.
This is a war film, and Husson doesn’t introduce us to warfare the way other filmmakers would (with audible explosions and gunshots); we are instead thrust into a casket of oppression, where violence is not exciting, but horrifyingly near.
This is made doubly clear by the story, which is about a group of Kurdish women attempting to liberate their town (located in an unspecified region in Kurdistan) from invading extremists. Their husbands have been killed, their daughters sold into sex slavery, and their sons kidnapped to become child soldiers. They call themselves the “Girls of the Sun” battalion. They are led by Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani) and accompanied by a French journalist, Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot), who has also been traumatized by senseless violence.
As they fight for their freedom, we flashback to when Bahar was a wife and mother and the horrifying events that left her no other choice but to become a soldier and leader. These are the roughest and most excruciating portions of the film, but they are also the best. The unravelling of Bahar’s life by the extremists is shattering. Farahani excellently shows Bahar’s transformation from ordinary person to absolute warrior in every second of screen time she has. Farahani, who was also terrific in the 2016 Jim Jarmusch film “Paterson”, is a thrilling actress.
But Bahar is not always the film’s focus because it is only through Mathilde that the viewer gets to spend time with the film’s most interesting character. Mathilde is the way that the film chooses to bring us to the battlefield, which seems pointless when the viewer realizes the film could have just been about Bahar all along, sans Mathilde. Mathilde’s subplot of guilt and abandonment isn’t where the story belongs. Simply put, whenever the film chooses to focus on the reporter, the film wastes valuable time it could be using to devote itself to the warrior.
“Girls of the Sun” wants the viewer to stop hiding their attention from the genocides happening around the world. Husson sees war as a disease that rips through millions of communities, no matter where, and her sensitive and powerful direction express this mightily when she devotes herself to Farahani’s fierce, weary, soulful character.
This is a story about badass women fighting to get their lives and identities back. The stellar cinematography by Mattias Troelstrup avoids framing them as wretched and joyless, wisely opting to give them space to express their personalities.
This is an undercooked epic; a very decent film, but one that is all too infrequently moving. It has all the makings of an instant classic, but it doesn’t allow its best narratives and most complex characters enough time to help this rise to the level of tragedy the way movies like “Beasts of No Nation” (2015) and “Incendies” (2010) did.