If this year is one of reckoning for women, then “Girls of the Sun,” screening in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, is the film for this era.
The fact-based story of a female Kurdish unit fighting ISIS in northern Kurdistan, the film brings to vivid life the stories we have all read but found so hard to imagine — of women taken into sexual slavery, raped, impregnated, sold and resold like so much meat.
French filmmaker Eva Husson wisely anchors her story in two characters. The first is a French journalist (actress and director Emmanuelle Bercot) who is addicted to the life and drama of the front lines — so much so that after barely surviving bombings in Syria, she leaves a daughter behind to risk her life covering the Kurds.
The revelation of the film, though, is Bahar, as played by Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani (“The Patience Stone,” “Paterson”), she of almond eyes and perfect profile. Bahar wields an automatic rifle as effectively as she slowly unveils her tale of personal tragedy. She wanders between Kurdish, Arabic, French and English, plus her character has a law degree.
It spoils nothing to say that Golshifteh has lost a husband and son in captivity, but it fully explains her fearlessness. She and the other women of the unit have nothing to lose, and they fight like it. Their ululating cries as they charge into battle terrifies the ISIS fighters, and Bahar rubs it in with the cold comfort of a hardened veteran.
(She answers the ringing cellphone of someone she killed to remind the dead fighter’s brother that he can’t go to paradise because he was killed by a woman.)
But before Bahar was a warrior, she was a victim. “Girls of the Sun” moves back and forth in time between the nightmarish invasion by extremists (the names of towns and terrorist organizations are changed for the film, but it’s not hard to figure out this was ISIS), and the scenes of armed camaraderie among the women’s unit as it waits for the next attack.
Some may find the thundering music manipulative, others will find it an effective counterpoint to the film’s heavy emotion. But the emotion is honestly won. This is, after all, how it has happened for hundreds if not thousands of women victimized by Isis’s brutality.
Any number of scenes swing between pathos and horror, but the film cannot possibly exaggerate the horrors that women in this part of the world have actually lived.