Producer Didar Domehri and director and writer Eva Husson read about Kurdish women who’d survived brutal abuse by ISIS and escaped to form a brigade of soldiers fighting to reclaim their towns from the terrorists. After intensive research, the filmmaking partners decided to explore the stories of these brave women warriors cinematically with Girls of the Sun. They wanted to make the film as true to life as possible without veering into documentary, so they spoke to numerous survivors, collected commonalities and unique details from a variety of accounts, and weaved them all into a film that paints how swiftly ISIS seized power and how their reign of terror and slavery was challenged by the very women they abused. The film, which was acclaimed last year at Cannes and other festivals, premieres in the U.S. in April.
Some essential background to the truth-based narrative: The mainstream media narrative on ISIS has shifted recently. As the fundamentalist militant group has lost some of its hold in parts of the Middle East like Syria and Iraq, news updates are less about major battles and more about survivors, about women and children who were captured by the Islamic State now trying to make it home to their communities.
But only a few short years ago, the story felt very different. The Islamic State was regularly attacking and slaughtering religious and ethnic minority groups like the Yazidis and Kurds: killing all the men in a village, kidnapping the young male children, and capturing women and girls for sex slavery. Thousands of families were affected, and we’ve seen refugees scatter throughout the Middle East and beyond.
And amid all that, a peculiar story started attracting attention: that Kurdish women were fighting back after escaping from ISIS, joining an all-female battalion of Kurdish soldiers, or peshmerga. The peshmerga, who are organized into various regional factions, are responsible for protecting Iraqi Kurdistan, and women have served in their ranks for years.
These specific female soldiers who joined to fight ISIS were featured by news outlets like NPR, CBS, CNN, and Frontline, and it is their stories that are dramatized in Girls in the Sun.
Before the release of Girls of the Sun, Roxana Hadadi spoke to Domehri (who in 2009 created her own production company Maneki Films, which produced the film) about her and Husson’s vision, how Iranian-French actress Golshifteh Farahani became attached to the project, and the film’s portrait of female resilience and unity in the face of overwhelming cruelty and hardship.
ROXANA HADADI: I had read about this story before, and was so excited when I learned that a movie was being made about these women. How did you and Maneki Films get involved?
DIDAR DOMEHRI: We have produced a couple of feature films, one of them being by Eva Husson, Bang Gang (A Modern Love Story), that was in competition in Toronto. It was about teenagers, coming of age, and had great reviews and a great career in festivals and sold all over the world, and kind of launched Eva as a new director to watch. And when we were finishing Bang Bang, Eva told me about this article she had just read about these Kurdish female soldiers, and about these very specific stories of these ex-captives called the Girls of the Sun. They decided after escaping ISIS—who kept them slaves for months, sometimes for more than a year—they decided basically to learn how to fight and to go back on the battlefield as soldiers, and we just thought that it was such a ray of light in the darkness of this story of these women.
We decided to basically research that. Eva did right away after we decided to go after this. At that point we were also wondering if that was totally true, and we really had to do an important inquiry with documentaries about these girls. When we started to finance the film with a complete script, people were shocked and interested. These women were making a real difference in the battlefield. We surrounded Eva with a lot of people who knew the subject—of course a lot of people from Kurdistan, and war journalists read the drafts of the scripts. Basically what we decided is to make a feature film based on true stories, and true stories told by all these women, who really lived the stories. But the aim was not to make a documentary or a historical film. The difference is making a feature film for cinema and following the emotional journey of these women, and especially our main character, played by Golshifteh, and the woman playing the war journalist, Emmanuelle Bercot. It was a fantastic example of resilience, of female resilience.
RH: You mention talking to so many of these women to gather their stories for the film. How did the women react to that, to talking about what they had been through?
DD: This is one of the first questions that we had when we decided to meet these women. We were wondering if we were able to share these stories. People who have been through traumatic experiences don’t always want to talk about it, but they really wanted to speak, they really wanted to share their stories, because what they are trying to do is say, “There are still women that are captives, and we still need to fight, to get them liberated.” This story needs to be known and shared, as wide as possible. So that was very important, to have access to their stories, and what we found out was … most of them had similar stories, similarly horrible stories.
For some of them, it was more violent. Some of them stayed longer. We met women who were raped. One woman, over a year, she was sold to 10 different men, and she even gave birth to a kid during her captivity. … Sometimes reality really goes beyond fiction, and what we tried to do was take little bits of things from these stories and really tried to be faithful to them. We couldn’t tell them all because there were so many, and they were so violent, that we thought at one point, “No one will believe us.” Because the reality was something that we couldn’t fathom. And these stories need to be told from their perspective.
RH: Do you know how many women you spoke with in total?
DD: Eva saw so many women and had so many testimonies. I couldn’t even tell you. And we spoke to not only victims, but also the women who were part of the Parliament and were really politically motivated, and did so many things to raise money to basically pay smugglers to liberate these women. We spoke to war journalists who went there and did documentaries over there. We spoke with the Yazidi community [about what happens] when these girls come back from being raped, and sometimes they are pregnant with ISIS babies. That was really difficult because it’s a very conservative community. We went through all these processes.
RH: This feels like a really inclusive time for women’s stories, for movies made by and about women. Do you agree with that? Do you think the film benefits from being released at this moment?
DD: Me personally, I have been as a woman attracted to all kinds of stories, but of course very sensitive to the female point of view. And in many of the films that I’ve produced—not only the films by female directors, but also by male directors—the female point of view through a female character has always been quite important. I think that more and more people are sensitive to what we call the female gaze, because I think there are so many stories that could be told differently from a female perspective.
I think that there was this idea at one point that female directors were not able to do war films or certain genre films, but it’s less and less true. We have such huge examples of films directed by female directors with female protagonists—Wonder Woman is the biggest example of that kind—and there is a growing appetite for this kind of film. And I’m very happy about it. There is a growing awareness and appetite, and I think we really need to make some space for these women directors. They have a lot of things to say, and of course as a woman producer I am very sensitive to it, and I’m working hard on it. … It was not an easy task at the beginning. There were a lot of challenges around this film. First of all, we had to convince people that these women really exist, that our director was able to paint a very accurate portrait of these women, that she could be talented enough and skilled enough to do a war film.
RH: How did you address that? Was it continuing to prove your case, no matter what doubts you were faced with?
DD: Yeah, I think so. We stuck to our story, we really defined what we had in mind, and what Eva had in mind, how she wanted to direct the film. This is an original film with original subjects, and we really had to fight for it and films like this. It was nothing Eva had done before, but she proved that she was a very talented, brave, fierce director by being in competition with a second feature film in a very competitive field in Cannes.
RH: So how did Golshifteh get involved?
DD: When we decided to go and develop this film, the first thing we thought was, “We need someone strong enough, talented enough, a Kurdish speaker, and someone with a certain visibility.” And the first person we thought of was Golshifteh; we thought it should be her, and no one else. When we finished the development and we were between the treatment and the script, we went to see her in a French play in Paris. We asked to talk to her about this project, and she just told us very naturally, you know, “Girls, I was waiting for someone to do this film, and I know these stories and I know these women, and I was crying for someone to make a film about this. And even without reading the script, I’ll do it, and I’ll go for it.”
So that was a dream process, to have Golshifteh waiting for us to do this film. She was a wonderful actress and partner during the whole process. She gave anything that was needed in the film; she was really a key ally. She has such a strong energy.
RH: You mentioned earlier that it was very important to you and Eva to tell this story from a cinematic point of view, to not veer into documentary. Can you talk about how you walked that line in the development of the film?
DD: There was something in everyone’s story: when ISIS invaded Iraq and basically decided to take all these women and killed the men. It happened one very specific night. What they went through from the moment they were captured, and how they lived during their captivity—that was a very common story. And you cannot really show that in a documentary. That was really important to show in a feature film, how basically from a very normal life they became these sexual slaves and then how they turned themselves into female soldiers. All these emotional journeys they went through, all these horrifying stories about how many times they were sold, how they were moving all the time. That’s why we anted to make a feature film, to try and show how these women not only tried to stay alive, but were able to fight back—how much strength you need to be able to stand on your feet after being through such a trying trauma.
The historical facts, you can connect the dots, and you can find all those elements. In our film, we didn’t want to go through all the political issues and interpretations of specific events—we wanted to have a bit of distance from the facts. But if you know what happened, you can totally connect the dots, and see everything is in there.