Although there would seem to be little in common between filming a small drama set in Parisian bedrooms and staging large-scale battle sequences in the mountains of Kurdistan, Eva Husson wanted to close the gap between her first and second film. Whereas the writer/director was previously tasked with conveying a feeling of life or death for her teenage protagonists in her explosive debut “Bang Gang: A Modern Love Story,” creating a blast of energy that reflected the raging hormones of its leads who indulged in casual sex parties and letting every dramatic development carry the weight of the world befitting of characters who couldn’t yet comprehend the consequences of their actions, she found that in telling the story of the Yazidi women who really were laying their lives on the line, taking up arms after thousands of men had been murdered in the Sinjar Province of Kurdistan at the hands of ISIS in 2014, the addition of gunfire and bombs were a natural extension of the wounds the teens in her first feature could inflict on one another with words and careless actions.
“I approached the filming of war the same as I approached sex in “Bang Gang” – it was the same kind of code to crack in the sense that it has to be there as part of the story, but I don’t want to overpower the emotions of the characters,” says Husson. “When I researched war movies, I realized the ones I was responding to very strongly were very much embedded with their characters, going through what war means like “The Thin Red Line” or “Apocalypse Now,” and for example the movie that’s really celebrated [for its action], “Black Hawk Down,” I’ve never been able to finish it. I get too bored. It doesn’t speak to me.”
Husson makes “Girls in the Sun” undeniable, with one needing only to look into the sunken eyes of Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani), a resistance fighter who has come to lead an all-female battalion on the Kurdish border, to understand what she’s lost and still compels her to fight. Joined by a French war journalist (Emmanuelle Bercot) to bear witness, the former lawyer is a natural commander, yet she is clearly shaped by tragedy, with the film gradually dipping in and out of flashbacks to spy her previous life with her husband and son that is pushing her towards recapturing a village said to house a school for young children. While “Girls of the Sun” often feels epic with staggering shots of a war-ravaged landscape where bits of natural beauty still peek through and immersive staging of battle scenes that put you in the center of the action, Husson never loses sight of the deep sense of pain that drives Bahar, alternately exhausted and exhilarated by the responsibility of reclaiming some small measure of justice if not for herself, for the other women in her squad after their lives have been so thoroughly upended.
With the film arriving in American theaters after first making a splash last year at Cannes, Husson spoke about finding the right location in Eastern Europe after it became too dangerous to film in Kurdistan, the crucial role of music as an influence for the film, and what she felt her own responsibility was in telling the story centered on a culture that was not her own.
How did this come about?
I was thinking about the next movie I wanted to make and the producer of my first movie and I were talking at the time of actually making a comedy and then I came across news articles about Kurdish women who had escaped ISIS. Not only that, they had become fighters and it triggered something in me as a woman. I [thought] “Wow, for once, we are not just the victims. We have the social context and the collective support to stand up and not get victimized and refuse that position.” I thought if I was so moved by a few lines in a newspaper, it’d be very powerful on the big screen for two hours. I could do things that documentaries and news features can’t do. I could basically portray the emotional journey of someone who leads a very similar life to a lot of women around the world. She’s a lawyer over there and suddenly her life gets turned around and completely collapses and how do you go from a regular person in a workforce to the woman to a fighter. That journey is fascinating to me.
There’s a scene relatively early in the film set around the bonfire with the battalion where you see a whole range of emotions and experiences in that scene. What did you want to show?
It’s interesting because when we started shooting that scene, my editor could hear the diegetic music — the Kurdish techno that a lot of Kurdish fighters listen to in their downtime and it was interesting, but then she made a suggestion, a track from our composer that was extremely sad and the juxtaposition of the sadness in the music and the attempt at joy and the attempt at being together in that moment really resonated with me when I did the scene. I don’t think you ever fully recover from an experience like this, but it doesn’t mean you don’t ever experience joy again. Yet it will forever be a tainted joy because you’ve seen things that you can’t unsee, and that was what I was going for – to just convey that sentiment of melancholy and yet bravery of still feeling joy despite all of what happened.
What was it like finding all those amazing locations in Georgia?
We had a lucky break there. I was extremely concerned about the locations, so we visited Kurdistan with my producer to have a realistic idea of what it was. When you have to recreate a world, I think it’s very important to infuse yourself with colors and smells and really what it means to the people that live there. Photos and videos just don’t do it justice because you never see what’s on the left and the right and you never see these things as a whole. So we realized it was not going to be possible to shoot in Kurdistan. It was like a minefield at the time. It was too explosive a situation, even though some people told us we could.
When we started to look at other countries, a few options came up – one of them was Morocco, but I thought shooting Moroccan people for Kurdish people was a complete betrayal. I’m very, very sensitive to cultural specificities and like a lot of people [recently], I’ve done a lot of work trying to understand what it means to be white in this world and tell stories. I didn’t want to screw that up. So we asked around and realized that even though it was small, Georgia had a strong Kurdish community and the landscapes were extremely similar to North Kurdistan. And yes, there are breathtaking landscapes because it’s mountains and sun and it’s very cinematographic, but it was a very important part of the narration because the sun is really part of their culture and what they go through, the experience there. A lot of them are drenched in sun, even though it’s in the mountains. These are grandiose settings and Georgia the country was very generous with us on that level.
The film gradually introduces Bahar’s memories and eventually goes fully into her experience by the end. Was that something you might’ve played with in the edit?
No, the movie was not easy [and while] the financing went very fast because my producer moves mountains very quickly, but everybody in the industry who really responded to the movie understood that we had to move fast – it was topical, but I knew we had very little room to manuever, in terms of money because it’s Kurdish, it’s about women and war and everybody was betting on the fact that the final movie could be good, but we could not have the luxury of shooting for seven months like “The Thin Red Line” or “Apocalypse Now.” They had budgets – $55 million for “Thin Red Line” or over $100 million in 1979 money for Coppola, and we had under $4 million. So I just realized that my best bet was to work a lot on structure in prep and the writing phase and we introduced the flashbacks and the specific entry points of the flashbacks early in the writing and then we moved very, very little.
A film in the editing phase is very much like a fascinating jigsaw puzzle. You have all the pieces and you have a map and it’s supposed to go one way, but there’s always adjustments. We anticipated this so much that in the end, we had prepped that part of the work the right way and the issues we had weren’t so much about structure, but making things work. It was a good lesson in filmmaking [because] I just realized an action scene in the end is not too hard to edit because you just go for it and you have one direction and you have to be clear enough not to confuse too many people, but the dialect scenes remain the most mysterious and intriguing moments of editing because sometimes you just change one silence and the whole mood of the dialogue is changed. The balance is so fragile it ends up being a lot more work.
The emotional undercurrents are highlighted quite well by this beautiful score from Morgan Kibby, who you’ve worked with for the second time after “Bang Gang.”
For me, what she did is really exceptional. I’ve known Morgan for over 17 years now, and I met her when I was at AFI. She was an actress at the time and we did a couple projects together and she transitioned into composing music. We both took a chance on each other with my first feature project, “Bang Gang” and as you might remember, it was very electronic, very atmospheric, much in line with the work she had done with M83 at the time.
When we started working on “Girls of the Sun,” I told her I wanted something epic and something that was not afraid of being emotional because it is a story about women heroes. I wanted to convey that with the music and when I received her first piece, it was while I was shooting in the morning in Georgia. It was six a.m. and the sun was rising up the mountains and I was crying – it’s the opening piece of the movie and from that track, we developed a grammar for the soundtrack with French horns and a symphony orchestra. I was like, “That’s it. That’s our direction.”