Women seize Cannes spotlight but Kurdish war movie misfires
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China’s Jia Zhangke and Iran’s Jafar Panahi deliver powerful tales of female defiance and resilience, but Eva Husson’s take on Kurdish women's epic fight against the Islamic State (IS) group is a wasted opportunity.
It was girl power on the Cannes Film Festival's famous red carpet last night, an impressive equality march by 82 female film stars and executives – matching the paltry number of female directors who have climbed the famous steps since the festival’s first edition back in 1946 (compared to 1,688 men). The stirring display was followed by the premiere of that rarest of things: a war movie by a woman in which women do the fighting. Sadly, Eva Husson’s “Girls of the Sun”, a homage to Kurdish women’s epic fight against jihadist rape, torture and enslavement, was not up to the task. By the end of the night, girl power had been upstaged by a male duo – and I don’t mean the two men in black suits (festival bosses Thierry Frémaux and Pierre Lescure) who photobombed the women’s historic red carpet march.
Though fictional, Husson’s film is inspired by the Kurdish-led battle to reclaim Yazidi lands overrun by the Islamic State group. Golshifteh Farahani stars as Bahar, a former lawyer turned military commander on a mission to liberate her land, find her enslaved son and avenge her slain menfolk. Emmanuelle Bercot plays French journalist Mathilde, who lost an eye to shrapnel in Homs (a clear reference to eyepatch-wearing reporter Marie Colvin, who was killed in the Syrian city in 2012). Fascinated by Bahar’s personal ordeal and her battalion’s courageous fight, Mathilde tags along with the all-female unit as they set off on a commando mission while the men stay behind.
Partisan, passionate and earnest, Husson’s film isn’t shy about who the goodies and baddies are. The Kurdish cause is certainly a noble one, but it is somewhat problematic that the enemy is never called by name (only the “extremists”), and also odd that the term “yazidi” isn’t mentioned either. While the action is at times compelling, it is woefully undercut by some cheesy war-movie clichés, complete with rousing pre-battle speech, silly voiceovers and dialogues, and an irritating, melodramatic soundtrack. “If our breasts could give oil rather than milk, the coalition would have come long ago,” says Bahar as US-led airstrikes finally join the battle, in one of several, groan-worthy lines.
“Girls of the Sun” has naturally been described as a feminist war movie – but what does that really mean? Granted, this femme-centred work by a woman and about women is a novelty in itself. It has an eye for female-specific suffering, and the compassionate sisterhood borne out of it, that war films all too often ignore. But its message is naive, unsubtle and sometimes ambiguous. Bahar is the Kurdish wonder woman, “a queen from a distant past”, as her devoted fighters call her. She is tender and compassionate but also a badass, and the film cannot refrain from romanticising her fight and revelling in its spectacle. She and her companions are willing to give up their lives for the cause, but isn’t that also what the rapist, women-hating jihadists do?
There’s another woman who fires a shotgun in Jia Zhangke’s “Ash Is Purest White”, and her character is the strongest and most complex I’ve seen so far in Cannes. Jia’s latest ambitious meditation on China’s brutal transition to capitalism is a deeply moving tale of disappointed love and female resilience. Spanning the past two decades, it is set in the country’s provincial crime underworld. Zhao Tao, the Chinese director’s muse and wife, delivers another soulful performance as Qiao, the girlfriend of small-town mobster Bin, played by the mustachioed Liao Fan. When Bin is ambushed by a rival gang, Qiao fires a shot to save him and is jailed for five years after taking the rap. Upon her release, she embarks on a gruelling journey to find her man and rebuild her life.
A difficult, sometimes ponderous film, “Ash” is a slow-burner punctured by a flash of brutal violence that will leave viewers breathless. Once again, Jia’s focus is on the flip side of China’s latest great leap forward, a theme he mined with devastating impact in his previous Cannes entries, “A Touch of Sin” and “Mountains May Depart”. The country is on the move, from coal miners banished to remote Xinjiang to entire cities flooded by the Three Gorges Dam. For society’s many losers, the future looks ominous: There isn’t a pretty building, or a speck of blue sky, in the entire movie. Amid all the bleakness and disillusion, Qiao’s character is a study in defiance and resourcefulness. Bin and his bros take themselves very seriously, professing to abide by the code of honour of the underworld. But when push comes to shove and the men chicken out, Qiao alone remains upright and loyal.
There was more stirring female defiance in Jafar Panahi’s “Three Faces”, his fourth feature since Iranian authorities banned him from making films – and the second competition entry this year whose director was barred from attending (after Kirill Serebrennikov’s “Leto”). A clever and insightful no-budget film, “Three Faces” takes the acclaimed Iranian director on a road trip to a remote mountain village where actresses from three generations cross paths. This time, the limitations imposed on Panahi’s artistic expression (the subject of his recent work) take a back seat, with the spotlight instead falling on the stifling effects of patriarchy and traditional beliefs. More humble than Panahi’s award-winning “Taxi Tehran”, this is a charming and humane film, wrapped up by a beautiful shot of women walking into the distance. The march goes on.