Eva Husson at Cohen Media Group on Emmanuelle Bercot's war journalist character in Girls of the Sun (Les filles du soleil): "I got my inspiration on the writing from Martha Gellhorn." Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
Girls Of The Sun (Les Filles Du Soleil), starring Golshifteh Farahani and Emmanuelle Bercot, co-produced by Étienne Comar, was one of the films that did not have a press screening before the uniFrance and Film Society of Lincoln Center's Rendez-Vous With French Cinema luncheon last month at the Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, where I had conversations with the President of uniFrance, Serge Toubiana, directors Emmanuel Mouret on Lady J (Mademoiselle De Joncquières), Sophie Fillières on When Margaux Meets Margaux (La Belle Et La Belle), Pierre Salvadori and his star Pio Marmaï on The Trouble with You (En liberté!), and Mikhaël Hers on Amanda. After the event, I rushed off to the public screening of Girls Of The Sun and Hélène Fillières' Raising Colors (Volontaire) at the Walter Reade Theater.
Eva Husson on Golshifteh Farahani as Bahar: "You believe her in a second and I love that about her."
At the centre of Eva Husson's Girls Of The Sun stand two strong women. Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani), a lawyer, whose son Hemin (Tornike Alievi) was kidnapped and is now being trained by extremists as a child soldier in her occupied Kurdish hometown, has become the commander of an all-female Yazidi squad. Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot) is a French war reporter. She comes to join the girls of the sun in order to tell the world the story of these extraordinary women and their fight against oppression.
The background to Husson's film is the surprise attack on August 3, 2014 of ISIS troops on Yazidi territory. While most of the male inhabitants of the villages in the region were massacred right away, over 7,000 women and children were taken hostage. The women and little girls to be sold as commodities, and the little boys to be taught to kill.
Eva Husson, now back in New York six weeks later for the Cohen Media Group release of her film, met with me at their offices the afternoon before the theatrical première.
Anne-Katrin Titze: The events that your film is based on are so terribly recent.
Eva Husson on Emmanuelle Bercot as Mathilde with Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani): "She has this mix that I absolutely love, of strength and vulnerability."
Eva Husson: Yes, they are still ongoing, in a way.
AKT: It's nearly five years ago.
EH: Oh wow, that's crazy it's that long ago already now. When I started doing the research it was August 31, 2015. It had been just a year and felt so fresh. Now what's happening is that they have over 2,500 women and children that are still unaccounted for. And considering the state of collapse, where ISIS is, I think a lot of people think that these people are not going to reappear. I guess that's the tragedy of it.
There's also something I've been reading about, there was some sort of pardoning that went through the Yazidi society about the women who got raped. The ones who came back to civil life. Apparently what they are dealing with right now culturally is the fact that children born from these rapes have not been pardoned by society. So they are being ostracised, basically kicked out.
They're coming against the second wave of trauma, which is one of the very powerful uses of rape as a war weapon. It's the cultural disruption. It's not just when it happens, it's not a memory, it's an every-day reminder. The Yazidi society is very endogamous, that's how they work, that's how they've been working for over a thousand years. So the fact that there is foreign blood within their society is extremely disruptive and a complete tragedy.
Girls Of The Sun (Les Filles Du Soleil) co-producer Étienne Comar Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
AKT: Hearing you talk now, or seeing certain parts of the film - one thing is that it is so recent, the other that this type of violence is so universal. You might think of images from the Middle Ages, as if time has had no impact and we haven't evolved.
EH: You know, what's interesting about what you're saying is that rape as a weapon in war has been going on for ages. I was reading stats the other day and over 70% of conflict victims are women. However, because the narrative has been masculine for so long, we only see the men on screen, we only hear about the men. But women have been going through these horrific moments since the dawn of times. But when you say it reminds us of the Middle Ages, it's just because you haven't been exposed to all the stories of contemporary women who have gone through that.
AKT: That's right. The stories of women are often treated as an aside.
EH: Rwanda, for example, over 500,000 women raped. That's half a million! Can you imagine the trauma in society? The Second World War, the 'comfort women' used by the Japanese army, over 300,000 women during the Second World War. And all the children of these rapes that came with it. It's something that's actually much more contemporary than what we know.
AKT: There are so many things that come up in your film that are overlooked elsewhere. A woman's son being trained as a child soldier, someone the woman could be confronted with. Was that one of the core ideas for you?
EH: To be very honest with you, had I had more money and therefore more time to shoot, that's one of the story lines I would have liked to develop, because I think it's quite fascinating in its ambiguity, in its ambivalence. I have a son, for example, and I really tried to wonder how it would make me feel if I lost my son and if I found him again completely brainwashed to hate. Like pure hatred. How do you deal with that? How do you recover from that? Same thing, what effect does it have in your own culture and how does it disrupt all this? There was one scene that I shot, that I could not put in because it felt like a third ending. It was Bahar watching her son watching her gun.
Eva Husson on Golshifteh Farahani in Girls Of The Sun (Les Filles Du Soleil): "You can completely believe that she's a leader."
AKT: What does that mean?
EH: She looked at her son and he was watching her own gun. And she was just realizing that the circle of violence was just going to keep on. It was really hard to put it in the edit and I couldn't do it.
AKT: I like that we don't see it, because it is in our heads anyway.
EH: Exactly. But I was just struck by an interview that I read about a Kurdish soldier who said that if he came across a child trained by ISIS, he would kill him. Just because there was no coming back from his point of view. I completely understand where he was coming from, in the sense that it's one thing to deal with brainwashing and de-programming people in a society that has the structure.
But when your society comes off war, everything has collapsed, so they don't have the structure. So how do you deal with these children who just keep harbouring this hate and who have been brainwashed? They have been triggered to sort of go towards violence. They were explaining that the children in kindergarten were exposed to beheadings, rapes, killings. And it was so traumatic for them that they kept on demanding for more and more and more.
Les Filles Du Soleil (Girls Of The Sun) French poster
AKT: The children demanded more?
EH: The children needed to see more violent pictures because they'd been conditioned. I don't know if 'liking' is the word.
AKT: Like a drug where they need more and more for the effect?
EH: Yeah, there's something addictive about it.
AKT: I just saw a film at Tribeca during the pre-festival screenings, called Luce, about a boy who was trained as a child soldier in Eritrea and adopted at age ten and now he is a star pupil in an American high school. And then trouble and suspicion start. On another note, let's talk about the two actresses you chose. Golshifteh is wonderful, there is all this light emanating from her face.
EH: Yes, she is radiant.
AKT: The combination of her with Emmanuelle Bercot, whom I interviewed in this same spot [on Standing Tall] is interesting. How did you pick those two?
EH: Golshifteh was a no-brainer because she's the only one who could pull it off. She spoke Kurdish, French, she was well-respected by both communities. She helped with financing, you know. It was all these boxes she was the only one to tick. And on top of that what really really impressed me was that she is so striking that she's usually used for her beauty and not for her acting skills, but she's an excellent actress.
And you can completely believe that she's a leader. You don't think, look at this girl who should be in a Dior dress and she's trying to play war! You believe her in a second and I love that about her. And she said yes to me before I finished my sentence and before the script was finished. Because she wanted to tell that story.
Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot) and Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani): "The whole incarnation of virility, of masculinity - to be courageous, to be honourable, to never have fear - what's the point of that?"
AKT: And Emmanuelle Bercot?
EH: Emmanuelle Bercot, she has this mix that I absolutely love, of strength and vulnerability. I wanted someone that's capable of running with people and guns and at the same time just collapse in tears, because that's her way to release the pressure. I think that's an image of women that we don't see enough, that feels very close to who I am. In the sense that I can lead a team of 100 people, I can also cry in front of that 100 people if there is a lot of pressure and if I need to let go. And it's okay.
I think it's important for us as women to represent that. It's just a different way to deal with stress. The masculine way is usually represented as you repress your emotion and you just power through things. I think we need more representation of the way we have to deal with stuff which is slightly different.
AKT: The character of Mathilde [Bercot] is a war journalist, so there is a bit of Martha Gellhorn?
EH: Of course. There's Martha Gellhorn. I got my inspiration on the writing from Martha Gellhorn. I read a lot of her stuff. So, well seen! You know, what stuck me, I didn't know her before I started the research and I realised that she was this icon of war reporting. She was one of the first, she started in 1936, she worked until she was in her eighties in Nicaragua. She was a force of nature.
AKT: And many people just see her as this sidekick to Hemingway.
Girls Of The Sun poster at the Quad Cinema in New York Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
EH: Because history is written by men. But she was so f…ing annoyed at this. She hated being seen as Hemingway's wife because that's a very very small part of her life and that was probably not the most happy one. She was a powerhouse and her writing is incredible. The texts she wrote about the Spanish Civil War and the text about Dachau, you know, the extermination camps, it will bring tears to your eyes. It's so well-written, it's so relevant today about what war is.
AKT: It makes me want to read her again. "Your presence alone is a victory. Fighting is a victory," Bahar tells her women.
EH: I think a lot of women don't give themselves enough credit to just show up.
AKT: Sometimes it's good to be told. In another scene, one of the women is told "These will be the most important steps of your life." I don't want to give away too much context. But the fact that she is being told that.
EH: Yeah, that's a complete credit to the Marxist/Feminist indoctrination of the Kurdish female soldiers. That's something that they say among themselves. You can have your qualms and nuances about how far the Kurdish guerilla goes, no doubt about that. However, there is a core honesty in terms of what they advocate for, in terms of feminism, equality in society and the empowerment they give to women, which is really remarkable. And stems from over a hundred years of female empowerment and the impact their leader [Abdullah] Öcalan has over them. Because he's one of the few political leaders who started decades ago saying "Our society will not be free as long as women are not free." How remarkable is that?
AKT: Very, if you look at the state the world is in. And in so many ways things are going backwards.
AKT: The idea that soldiers won't go to paradise if they are killed by a woman. I had never heard of this belief before.
Girls Of The Sun opened at the Quad Cinema on April 12 Photo: Anne-Katrin Titze
EH: That's kind of, the joke is on them, right? For me, and I really try to emphasise that, that's the reason why one of my characters whenever she is insulted by one of the extremists, where he says "You know, you're an apostate." And she's like "You f…ing idiot, I'm Muslim, too." I wanted it to be clear, that was not about religion. Don't buy into that bullshit. It's about patriarchy. Religion is always a great pretext for patriarchy and to promote patriarchy. And whatever is supposedly written as the truth in these supposedly written-by-God texts is the basis for maintaining oppression over women.
The bottom line is, they fear women because they lived in societies where women are completely excluded. So women are feared because they don't know them anymore. They become alien. I think any society that divides sexes is a sick society. You know what? In the end men are as much oppressed as women. They just don't know it yet, I guess.
But if you really deconstruct the oppressions, government states use men as meat for wars. The whole incarnation of virility, of masculinity - to be courageous, to be honorable, to never have fear - what's the point of that? Just to make sure that men will go to war to die for their own country. For the greater good, which is never their own good.
AKT: You have that separation in the children, as you show in the film. Here are the girls that are sold and here are the boys that are trained. So, meat and meat.
EH: Different meat, exactly.
AKT: I'm getting chills.
EH: I know exactly. You know, this is a long journey. I belong to a generation who thought that feminism had conquered it all. I was told there was no more need for feminism. It was a dirty word when I was a teenager. It took me ten years to start thinking, because the promise that was made when I was a teenager that everything was equal was f…ing bullshit. I'm not getting as many opportunities as men, that's a fact. And whoever tells me the contrary was probably a man, a). Or b), a woman who reaps the benefits of the oppression. Like the few women who in that era were included in masculine settings were usually behaving like men and were making other women pay the same price they had been paying themselves.
The whole idea of coming to terms with the idea that the oppression is not just against women but also against men - it takes a long time. I think if you forget one part of the equation, you will get lost in anger, resentment and in the fact that it's a war against the other sex. It's a war against systemic oppressions, you know, big scale oppressions. I think we really have to work hand in hand so that they're not as efficient.
The second thing that I think you have to realise as an individual is: how are you part of the oppression? Because we're always a little bit part of the oppression. For example, I have to check myself from time to time. When I'm interviewing people for hire, I will probably have lower standards for men than for women. It's a fact. I hate it and I have to check it.
AKT: It's a good reminder for yourself. You said something very interesting about being told that all the work is already done. It's dangerous to be told "We're good." No need for feminism any more.
EH: You don't need to fight any more.
At the French Institute Alliance Française in New York on Saturday, April 20 the 7:30pm screening of Girls of the Sun will be introduced by Nadia’s Initiative Special Advisor Elizabeth Schaeffer Brown. Nadia’s Initiative is an organization that advocates for women and minorities and was seeded by Nadia Murad (Alexandria Bombach's On Her Shoulders), co-recipient of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize, with 100% of her prize money.
Girls of the Sun is in cinemas in New York and Los Angeles.