No mincing words, here: war movies can be difficult to watch. The popular movies set in World Wars 1 or 2 or the Vietnam War often focus on the bloodied experiences of soldiers on battlefields and command centres and are not for the faint-hearted.
This is what makes the multilingual movie Girls of the Sun interesting as it is an unflinching take on the experience of women in a more contemporary war: Syria in the 2010s. It is based on the true story of an all-female Kurdish combat unit who fought in 2014 to reclaim territory from ISIS. When ISIS stormed into Bahar’s (Golshifteh Farahani) town in Northern Iraq, she is captured with her husband and son. She was then sold into sex slavery with thousands of other women while ISIS soldiers killed her husband and took their young son to train as a child soldier.
When Bahar escapes, she leads a Kurdish female combat unit. In this war, she has no uniform or training and her cheers for Kurdistan are hollow given that no country recognises its autonomy. She wants to do more but her male commander wants to wait for the American-led coalition to launch airstrikes. Bahar is shrewd enough to know that the coalition and her commander need to claim a military win. Her focus is to rescue civilians, including her son who would otherwise be collateral damage.
Joining her in this mission is Mathilde (Emmanuelle Bercot), a French war reporter who is ‘embedded’ with Bahar’s unit to document her leadership. This is partly Bahar’s request so the world can know the truth about her life and war. She has not learnt that history is written by victors and Mathilde reminds her somewhat cruelly, that truth is subjective. Mathilde is quite a character and based on the American foreign correspondent Marie Colvin. She lost her eye in the Sri Lankan civil war and wore an eye patch until her death. Director Eva Husson thankfully did not place Mathilde as the central character in this movie; it is told from Bahar’s point of view with Mathilde as the messenger.
The movie challenges what we think soldiers or prisoners of war look like. Through movies and news, we assume soldiers have uniforms and prisoners are kept in jails or cramped quarters, with no food or access to sunlight. Here, Bahar and her fellow prisoners are under a sort of house arrest, with access to modern amenities. Their captors keep them in a large compound, but it is hard to leave as the town itself serves as a jail. When they finally escape, it is tense and suspenseful but nothing like Saving Private Ryan or Black Hawk Down.
The movie was well received at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival but since then, critics have been lukewarm, calling it melodramatic in parts. This seems like a suspiciously gendered term. Yes, the movie shows a range of emotions, from women who deliver their babies by the side of the road to agitated fighters, but it is not overly sensational. If anything, the first part of the movie is harrowing because the abuse inflicted on the women is emotional and sexual in addition to physical. The battleground here is not just cities and fields; it is also in houses, bedrooms and cars. And it is terrifying.
If you’re looking for a change of pace after Girls of the Sun while staying on the war movie theme, Their Finest is a good option. In this comedy/drama, set in 1940 Britain, Catrin (Gemma Arterton) is delightful and plucky as she navigates a world that is changing by the day. She starts a new job at the Ministry of Information thinking it is an admin role but ends up as a scriptwriter. Unlike Girls of the Sun, the war in Their Finest happens in the background. It is this inconvenience that takes up all the fine young men and leaves the entertainment business with just women and crotchety old men.
Catrin is asked to suss out a story of two sisters who sailed on their boat to rescue soldiers in Dunkirk, so that it can be made into a movie to boost morale and convince the Americans to join the war. She finds that reports of the sisters’ bravery were greatly exaggerated but as the cliché goes, she does not let truth stand in the way of a good story.
This job becomes the catalyst for her personal journey and the indignities she faces along the way: lower wages compared to the male writers and constantly fighting to get more screen time for her heroines.
In 1940s Britain, women had to fight to be the heroes in their own war story. By the 2010s in Syria, women became the heroes in their own war, but at an exorbitant price.