One-eyed French photojournalist Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot) joins Kurdish female battalion as they prepare to take back their town from Islamic State extremists. She becomes fascinated with the unit’s commander: Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani), a courageous, ferociously determined fighter haunted by a horrific past. As the soldiers steel themselves for a brutal battle, Bahar hopes to storm an ISIS training camp for child soldiers to rescue her kidnapped son.
Girls of the Sun premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival to a positive reception from the attending audience only to be savaged by critics. Phrases like "exploitative" and "immoral" were bandied about even in the midst of some pushback from the #MeToo movement that embraced the film as a vital feminist story. Even so several female writers of note called out its feminist credentials as bogus, citing the script’s emphasis on motherhood as a woman’s defining role. Divorced from the all too predictable hysteria and hyperbole that characterized Cannes' fumbled attempts to reconcile with the movement, viewers will likely appreciate Girls of the Sun for the earnest if imperfect drama that it is. Far from exploitative or immoral writer-director Eva Husson's treatment of this compelling true life story is empathetic and affecting. For all the accusations of her detractors the film focuses on the emotional impact of abuse endured by Bahar and her family in captivity rather than any crassly explicit or exploitative scenes.
While French journalist Mathilde, who suffers from a mental and emotional trauma that is none too clearly defined, functions as our 'ride along' character, the real lead of the film is outstanding Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani as Bahar. Farahani, who has a thriving parallel Hollywood career in films like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017), Jim Jarmush's Paterson (2016) and Extraction (2020), boldly inhabits the forthright, French educated, former lawyer rape survivor turned freedom fighter who grapples not just with a relentless enemy but the entrenched sexism of fellow Kurdish soldiers. Husson punctuates the film with flashbacks to Bahar's happy, stable family life that slowly erodes into a nightmare of subjugation and sex slavery. While the flashbacks do tend to disrupt the flow and sap some of the emotional impact of the present-day narrative they give viewers a glimpse of something unseen on our western media. That is a portrait of a thriving, upbeat, life-affirming Kurdish community just before it is swept away by a wave of fundamentalism.
Maybe it boils down to a matter of taste. Yet what some critics found melodramatic and laden with bombast others may find affecting, grounded and all too real. There is an undeniable weight to the portrait of these resilient women. It is the quiet, lyrical moments that serve the film best. As when the Yazidi women huddle together for comfort or dance and sing to celebrate the birth of a new baby. Their thriving spirit in the face of a nightmarish scenario proves as important as their fighting prowess. Certainly the film has its flaws. Among them an ending too abrupt and confusing to achieve the emotional crescendo Husson seems to be striving for. Additionally Mathilde comes across as something of a straw woman mouthpiece for the filmmaker given her propensity for editorializing, even over the closing credits. Nonetheless Girls of the Sun is a vital testament to the suffering and fortitude of the Yazidi women, finding its most potent metaphor in a harrowing sequence where the pregnant Lamia (Zübeyde Bulut) struggles painfully to hold back from birthing her baby until she and Bahar make it safely across the border.