Director Eva Husson’s Girls of the Sun is, in certain ways, an old-fashioned story. With its naked celebration of self-sacrificial combat and idealization of the soldier as an avenging angel, it strikes a tone redolent of old-school war propaganda. One might see it as an argument for the struggle against ISIS as the new “good war,” a battle between the forces of evil and the righteous soldiers of absolute good. But in more significant ways, it’s also a new kind of story, as the soldiers in this case are a platoon of Kurdish women.
The film begins on a French photojournalist identified only as Mathilde H. (Emmanuelle Bercot)—whose backstory and distinctive eye-patched look are clearly based on the late American war correspondent Marie Colvin—as she travels across the Turkish border to meet up with the Kurdish forces fighting ISIS along the northern border between Iraq and Syria. It’s November of 2015 and the Kurds are on the verge of taking a contested city back from the self-declared caliphate. Among their most seasoned troops is a platoon of local women, former ISIS captives who’ve joined the siege of their own conquered city. While other reporters begin to flee in anticipation of impending coalition airstrikes and a subsequent offensive, Mathilde embeds herself with the female soldiers in the frontline of their war against ISIS.
By incorporating the event that killed Colvin in 2012—a bombing in Homs, Syria—into Mathilde’s rough-and-tumble backstory, Husson and co-screenwriter Jacques Akchoti wade into ethically murky terrain. Girls of the Sun, set in 2015, plays like a counterfactual, as if Colvin had survived the event that killed her and continued reporting on the Syria quagmire. Despite the presence of some character elements not inspired by Colvin, the resemblance between Mathilde and an iconic journalist who was dead well before this story begins to undercut the film’s claim to veracity; the opening title cards claim that Girls of the Sun is based on true events, with only names of people and places changed.
The platoon Mathilde follows is led by Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani), who impresses Mathilde with her fierce debate with her general (Ahmet Zirek), and surprises her with her facility in French. After this meeting, the narrative shifts focus from Mathilde to Bahar, who leads her platoon with stern resolve, but also care: At one point, when Amal (Maia Shamoevi) isn’t feeling well, Bahar lets the soldier sleep in a bit. As the platoon guards the exit to a tunnel that leads to the enemy’s HQ, awaiting the general’s decision on whether to attack before the coalition airstrikes, the film flashes back to Bahar’s traumatic backstory, which includes the murder of her husband and kidnapping of her son, and her own time in captivity as a sex slave.
The film’s flashbacks, sentimentally styled and conventionally plotted, make up a good portion of the story. Their representation of rape and murder at the hands of robotically evil ISIS soldiers feels extraneous, making one wonder if much of this origin story would have been better left unspoken, implied through Bahar’s actions and dialogue in the film’s present day. In addition, these flashbacks are oddly incorporated into the structure of Girls of the Sun, as they tend to come at under-motivated moments and run for inconsistent stretches of screen time, which can be disorienting. But Farahani is a talented actor and a commanding presence, holding our attention even when the flashbacks are at their most contrived.
Rather than a complex representation of a historical reality, Girls of the Sun is best understood—and appreciated—as a character-driven action film. And indeed, Husson’s direction of the action scenes constitutes the real strength of the film. As the women defend their post against surreptitious incursion and later advance through the tunnel system to breach the perimeter of the Kurdish city, Husson’s tight camerawork conveys the white-knuckle ambiguity of the fog of war, the life-and-death play of the visible and the unseen on the battlefield.
The battle scenes project a sense of disorientation that feels much more controlled and purposeful than that created by Bahar’s flashbacks. Husson conveys the intense confusion of an urban battle without sacrificing the viewer’s sense of space; the film’s images and cutting maintain a clarity of movement and action even when the precise location of the threat is unclear. Any lessons Girls of the Gun might have to teach are no doubt simplifications, perhaps even misleading glorifications, of a complex and tragic story that is still unfolding. But as well-made wartime pomp, it has thrills in equal measure to its obfuscations.