Eva Husson’s second film is set largely in Iraqi Kurdistan, and follows a battalion of Kurdish women, led by Bahar, played by Golshifteh Farahani, as they try to reclaim their village from ISIS, in the wake of the Yazidi Genocide. All of the women in the battalion are former ISIS captives, and most of them have seen their families murdered before their eyes. Most of the film involves their preparation for their final assault on the local ISIS compound, which is connected to their own headquarters on the outskirts of town by a complex network of tunnels and fortifications. While their main objective is to regain the safety of their homes and lives, many of them, included Bahar herself, have had sons taken by ISIS, and suspect they are being trained by ISIS in what used to be the local schoolhouse. Reclaiming the town therefore means rescuing their own children from indoctrination, although Fahar also affirms the importance of the troop above and beyond any specific objective, and above and beyond any specific achievement: “Your presence is a victory, your fighting is a victory.”
With the exception of Stephane Brize’s At War, which I also saw at the same French Film Festival, I can’t think of a recent film I’ve seen where my experience seemed to be so different from that of critics. Much of the critical response to Husson’s film has lambasted it for its supposedly exploitative, clichéd and self-satsified take on another nation’s tragedy, presumably – partly – because of the framing device provided by Mathilde, played by Emmanuelle Bercot, a French journalist who arrives in Kurdistan early in the film to interview the battalion and document their activities. Yet while Mathilde remains an integral part of the film, her role in mediating the film’s actions quickly drops away once she is unable to get out of Iraq in time to file her story. Never presented as an objective perspective on events, but never fully absorbed into the battalion either, Mathilde makes it difficult to situate ourselves, as Westerners, within this narrative, which is perhaps why so many critics have felt compelled to solidify that Western perspective through their own writing, either by criticising the film for glamorizing events or (more rarely) by celebrating the film as a direct riposte to the Western film industry, neither of which is really the case.
Instead, the batallion’s “rage to live” tends to displace the kinds of narratives that are typically spun about Middle Eastern women in Western cinema, producing an emergent and unsettled atmosphere that shifts fluidly between present and past, and dreaming and waking. Blending the topography of the body with the topography of the landscape outside, Husson favors close-ups at dawn and dusk that sometimes meld these women with their surroundings, but just as regularly makes them emerge from their surroundings in startling and unexpected ways. Bahar could be describing the atmosphere of the film as a whole when she reflects that “I doze, but I don’t sleep,” since every mise-en-scene seems to be suspended in a strange, semi-conscious state in which the arrival of ISIS hasn’t yet been processed, and can’t ever be properly processed, so drastic is its dissonance with the remaining fragments of Iraqi middle-class life that we see. For audiences in the West, films about the Middle East often play as a way to “understand” ISIS, but these Islamic women are as shocked and disoriented as any Westerner might be in this situation – in no way acclimatised to their town being remade as a war zone, let alone to the concept of ISIS itself.
In other words, Girls of the Sun dissociates Islamic subjectivity from radical Islamic terrorism more subtly than many other films made for a Western audience, refraining from the tropes of “good Muslims” typical in our mainstream media to present the – strangely disorienting – spectacle of traditional Islamic women being every bit as disoriented by an ISIS invasion as Westerners might be expected to be. To that end, Husson makes her film as quiet as possible, opting for sparse, long sequences without dialogue, or with minimal dialogue, as Bahar continually reminds her troops that waiting, too, is a form of warfare. Beyond a certain point, this quietness passes beyond the realm of naturalism, and segues into a proprioceptive or preternatural stillness that seems to situate the entire film just beneath the women’s skin. All senses are muffled except touch, which is preternaturally heightened, evoking lives that exist in near-total silence, whether the silence of submission to their ISIS captors, the silence of being a fugitive from their ISIS captors, or the silence of stealth warfare against their ISIS captors. Throughout all these different iterations, silence also becomes the most powerful language that these women have – an experience that they know inside out, and that they can mobilise effectively against ISIS, who by contrast are too enamoured with their own authoritative pronouncements to see silence creep up on them.
This produces a series of quite surreal and original battle scenes, in which the heroics and histrionics of ISIS are absorbed into the silent, efficient and proprioceptive communication and communion between the battalion of women. Whereas each ISIS soldier – and we don’t see that many – seems keen to make himself the centre of whatever conflict is taking place, the battalion of women connect at their peripheries, in the bundles of spaces around their bodies, by way of the minute tactile gestures that have sustained them during years of ISIS capture. Whether they are fighting together or dancing together, their activities suggest that no individual body can fully recover from ISIS, and that it instead requires a collective physiology, and a collective awareness of physiology, for them to start traversing the tolls taken upon their bodies. So comprehensively has ISIS internalised the language and vocabulary of war cinema that this collective physiological effort on the part of the battalion frequently feels divorced from war itself, turning their encounters with ISIS into an incidental, if important, part of their broader task of collectively affirming their own bodies.
This refusal to even concede ISIS as direct antagonists is one of the most powerful parts of the film, and the women’s mission, since so much of the rhetorical power of ISIS comes from thinking of themselves as antagonists in this way. Yet by displacing direct combat from the film, Husson also displaces any direct sense of victory as well, which isn’t to say that the women don’t really achieve something when they remove ISIS from their headquarters, but that it doesn’t feel defined against defeat, or antithetical to defeat, in the way that military victory generally does. In part, that’s because ISIS respond with a suicide bomb that all but decimates the remaining members of the battalion, along with some of the children being kept prisoner in the school. But it’s also because this dissociation of victory from defeat also tends to dissociate past from present as well, meaning that the women are never able to define their present against their past, or envisage a form of the present that has properly traversed the past, no matter how triumphant or successful the present might appear to be.
This is particularly clear when they first take control of the compound, lowering the ISIS flag and proclaiming freedom to Kurdistan only for Husson to displace their victory into a sustained sequence depicting Bahar’s original escape from ISIS captivity. Too fluid and too sustained to ever quite qualify as a flashback, this suspenseful sequence suggests that one of the main goals of ISIS is to effect traumatic ruptures between present and past, with many of the members and recruits seeming to enjoy the speed with which they wrench women out of their lives and repurpose them as their own. As if in a riposte to that, the film becomes more atemporal as it proceeds, and especially once the women emerge from the tunnel that links their compound to the ISIS headquarters, a pipeline that seems to bend and distort time as they move through it. By the time they encounter actual ISIS soldiers, they have already rejected the lifeworld that ISIS seeks to create, dispersing time and space across their bodies in ways that utterly defy the regulatory gaze of radical Islamic terrorism.
In other words, Girls of the Sun is prescient of the narrative power of ISIS – the way that its terror depends upon effecting narrative crises within the lives of its victims and spectators, along with its aptitude for drawing upon war genre tropes and tableaux in the spectacles that it crafts around itself. In response, Husson, and Farahani, create a collective corporeality that is dispersed and elastic enough to never quite meet ISIS on its own terms, or allow ISIS to perform and enact the narrative that it requires upon the women in the battalion. What ensues is never quite a war film, but instead a testimony to the power of women to collectively and corporeally reimagine the conditions of existence that are dictated for them. War, Husson suggests, is simply what ISIS calls that process, but Girls of the Sun eventually challenges the concept and rhetoric of war altogether, suggesting something more combative and more elliptical in its place, a form of solidarity that is haptic as much as cognitive, and defined more by the spaces in discourse than by a fully-formed discourse in itself. Call it the cinematic version of what Helene Cixous called ecriture feminine, since this might explain both the feminist push it received at Cannes, and the backlash from first-wave feminist film critics, along with the prescient and probing quietness that it casts across the film and its characters: “Can you hear it sisters?” “What?” “Silence.”