Eva Husson did not have an easy time at the Cannes Film Festival last May. The French filmmaker was there with just her second feature film, Girls of the Sun, entered in the prestigious competition. But as one of the few female directors in attendance that year (any year), the pressure to succeed was intense. And her father had died three days before the premiere.
And then the press watched the movie, and the knives came out. “Immoral.” “Insultingly bad.” “It cheapens everything it touches.” Says Husson: “I’m getting ripped apart by the French press. It’s poisonous. The amount of venom was just insane.”
We’re talking at the Toronto International Film Festival, an altogether friendlier affair. Cannes awards a golden palm that looks like it was struck by ancient Greek goldsmiths; TIFF has a people’s choice award named after a Dutch beer. Husson is in better spirits here, still convinced that Girls of the Sun was the film she wanted to make.
“The very reason we made that movie was not to seek the approval of a few French critics … but for the women I had interviewed and who were generous enough to trust me with their stories, and who fought against Fascism, and who just wanted to convey that story to other women and to other people.”
She adds: “You always make the movie that you wish you had seen on screens.”
Girls of the Sun is not a movie we’ve seen before, though it’s a type we’re familiar with; a war drama, seen through the eyes of a Western reporter, shot through with melodramatic music and heart-on-its-sleeve imagery. But the fighters, based on a real Kurdish unit that Husson met with, are an all-female battalion headed up by Bahar (Golshifteh Farahani) and fighting ISIS.
The director steeped herself in the genre before filming, and drew particular inspiration from Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, though they’re very different movies.
“Apocalypse Now is about the madness of war,” she says. “The Thin Red Line is about the metaphysics of war. And my subject was the strength of these women and the goal to get out alive and never surrender to men denying them their humanity.”
She continues: “My one guideline was subjectivity. I wanted the movie to reflect as much as possible the emotional journey of Bahar, the main character. I could have never made a naturalistic movie. I’m just not wired that way; I don’t see the world that way.”
Of her star, she was able to see past Farahani’s looks, which result in a lot of roles as the beautiful wife or girlfriend; North Americans may know her as Adam Driver’s artistic but unfocused partner in Paterson. Husson calls her a unicorn; strong and rare.
“She feels inhabited by a strength that goes way beyond her, and she carries that with her. The second I saw her with a gun in her hand there was no question about it. She’s a captain and she’s a leader and charismatic.”
She also carries something of the director’s fighting spirit in her character. “Bahar for me – what I put of myself into her – is that even in times of disaster and of death there are moments of solace. And I thought that was essential. Life is still there and it keeps on forcing its strength upon her and in spite of her.”
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