Thursday, August 20, 2020

Review - Girls of the Sun

August 20, 2020

Girls of the Sun – 2018, France

After watching Eva Husson’s moving and impressively acted film Girls of the Sun, I found myself reflecting upon something Albert Einstein said concerning the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi: “Generations will scarce believe that such a one as this ever in flesh and blood walked this earth.” No one in Husson’s film is a modern-day Gandhi, but the quote is relevant upon reflection of historical events that demonstrate humanity’s capacity for cruelty, such as the reign of terror inflicted upon average Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge and the genocidal actions of the Third Reich during World War II. Some of this incredulity stems from plain-old, deep-seated hatred, but others, I suspect, find it hard to accept that people could commit such atrocities or that if the deeds were indeed done, that the number of people murdered couldn’t possibly be as high as the official figures indicate. Apparently, there is to be a limit to the amount of suffering the human brain can accept.

I suspect the events depicted in Girls of the Sun will have their deniers one day, too, people whose concepts of human nature simply do not enable them to accept that one group could set as their goal the complete annihilation of another group. And yet this is what happened in 2014. ISIS invaded Mount Sinjar in Northern Iraq and began a reign of destruction that included the murder of countless Yazidi men and the raping and enslavement of an unknown number of Yazidi women. It was humanity at its most barbaric, so it is understandable that we would wish it were just one of those tales concocted in the minds of a great storyteller like Homer. Fortunately, we are still close to 2014, so it is relatively easy to dispel such notions, but as we get further from those terrible events, I wonder how long that acceptance of history will last. We are therefore lucky to have Girls of the Sun. It will always be a reminder of what transpired during that dark time in history.

Girls of the Sun is primarily the tale of two women brought together by tragedy. The first is Mathilde H (Emmanuelle Bercot), a reporter based on the late war correspondent Marie Colvin; the other is Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani), a Yazidi woman fighting on the front lines in Iraqi Kurdistan. The two meet when Marie is sent to cover the fight against ISIS. The two strike up, not a friendship per say, but a kinship based on the universal nature of suffering and the drive to persevere when it would be much easier to flee. Normally, one of these characters would be the more cheerful one, you know, the kind that brings the other out of her despair and back into the light; here, however, we are presented with two shell-shocked people, both of whom have to conceal their doubts and fears for the greater good. In an early scene, we see Mathilde sitting alone in her hotel room so distraught that she cannot bring herself to answer the phone when her daughter calls. Later, we see her put on a happy face when exchanging pleasantries with her colleagues; when they walk away, she literally gasps for air. Perhaps she knows what awaits.

Mathilde is assigned to shadow the leader of a group of female soldiers named Bahar, and she is immediately fascinated by her, similar to the way one would be with a rose growing in the middle of the desert. We learn that Bahar studied at a French university and has a degree in law. There is a scene of her staring lovingly into her husband’s eyes as the couple’s young son sleeps between them and one in which they attend a large family gathering. There’s also one of a late night phone call and an ensuing scramble to pack up and go. It comes too late: A truck full of ISIS soldiers appears, and the men are lined up against a wall at gunpoint. We don’t see what comes next; we don’t have to. We have Bahar’s anguished face and piercing cry.

The film tells Bahar’s story in two narratives. In one, she is a professional, a mother, and a wife – like so many others her age. In another, she carries an assault weapon and plans raids on ISIS troops, chastising male soldiers along the way for being passive or militarily predictable. Events from the former timeline provide the catalyst for her actions in the later timeline, and who better than a reporter to bring it out?

The film reveals many of ISIS’s most grotesque practices, yet it does so without relying on graphic visuals. As such, it is much more powerful, for staged atrocities can sometimes minimize the impact of actual ones by numbing us. We hardly flinch anymore at gun violence in films; early moviegoers flinched at the sight of a train seemingly approaching them. Big difference. In Girls of the Sun, it is Bahar’s face that tells us the extent of the nightmare unfolding in front of her, and few images capture true horror like that of a woman who has just watched her husband be murdered in front of her. We don’t need to see the body.

A film like Girls of the Sun can hardly be “loved” in the way a romantic comedy or family drama can, and I highly doubt viewers will rush to recommend it to their friends as easily as they would the latest sci-fi extravaganza. However, this type of film has the potential to resonate much more. It puts into context that which the mind has a difficult time fathoming. In Bahar’s story, we see the fates of far too many, and in Mathilde, we see the side of the reporter so often obscured by the television and the newspaper. We should be aware of them.

My gripe with the film – and it is a big one - it is that what is depicted in the flashbacks did not really expand my understanding of the horrors of 2014. Much of Bahar’s back story seems like a collection of news headlines cut out and interspersed to look more revealing than it really is. Reassembled, they would appear fragmented and incomplete, the surface details of a much deeper story. It is only when the flashbacks slow down, which they do during a pivotal stretch later on, that tension builds and we become completely invested in the characters’ plight. Perhaps the film needed a longer running time; the subject matter certainly warrants it.

I suspect that in a few years, when time has started blunting people’s memory of these events, that part of the film will resonate more. Then again, perhaps this is all we should expect at this time. After all, there’s a reason why the names of the characters have been changed: The scars are still there – and so is the threat. (on DVD and Blu-ray)

3 stars

*In French, Kurdish, English, and Arabic with English subtitles.

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