“They rape us, we kill them.”

That was the motto adopted by the real-life group of Yazidi women in Iraq who decided to hunt down their captors — and who inspired French director Eva Husson to dramatize them in her film Girls of the Sun, opening Friday in Toronto at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.

It follows a band of female Peshmerga fighters in northwestern Iraqi Kurdistan who set out to avenge the killings and kidnappings of their husbands and children by members of Daesh (also known as ISIS) who also held the women captive, some as sex slaves.

Girls of the Sun had its world premiere at the 2018 Cannes festival. I spoke to Husson when she brought the movie at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival for its North American premiere.

What brought you to this story?

I came across news articles about Kurdish women fighters, and digging around, I realized this story had to be told and I could play a part in that. I sent an email to my producer who was crazy enough to answer right away at 2 a.m. with “Let’s do it.”

Is it a true story?

You know, it’s a complex matter. The original battalion that got my attention when I investigated them, they never fought. That battalion specifically. But there are a lot of Kurdish women fighters and a lot of female battalions. So, I didn’t feel it was right to pretend that maybe it was based on that battalion and say it just happened. The movie’s more of an aggregation of several battalions and several women that I met along the way. So in a weird way, everything is true, just not in that specific order.

How did you research the film?

I interviewed all of the ex-captives. I went to meet them. I interviewed a lot of fighters, I interviewed a lot of war reporters, and I read a lot about the culture, about fights, about the political ideals. I like research; I come from a very classical academic background and that’s one of my favourite parts of moviemaking.

How did you choose your lead, Golshifteh Farahani?

She’s a unicorn. When I started writing the movie, I knew there would be only one actress that could have the talent, the strength and the financial power to make the movie happen. I could have done the movie with somebody else except that it would not have been the same movie at all, it would have been a much smaller movie. Golshifteh is a star in the Middle East. She’s a powerful actress and she’s quite well known in France … I reached out to her and explained the project to her. I hadn’t finished the script, but I wanted to make sure she was interested. And before the end of the sentence, she was like, “I’ve been waiting for someone to bring that story to me.” And I was like “Whaaat?”

What was important to you in how you told this story?

I think the portrayal of violence was something that I found an important facet in a lot of movies. When it’s directed toward women, they’re mostly portrayed as just victims. And I thought that it would be important to go a different route. To show violence, the way it’s usually shown for men (in male-directed movies), where it’s part of a story and it moves it forward. For example, rape scenes in a lot of male-directed movies drive me nuts. I sense that most of the time we just spend way too much time on something that we have the information on, and we don’t need to spend more time on it. But I think they start enjoying the process. And I know in the theatre that someone is enjoying it, and that makes me extremely uncomfortable. So most of that kind of violence is actually off camera in the movie. Rape has nothing to do with sex. Rape has to do with power. You deny another human being her identity, and that’s what it’s about. That’s what I’m showing.

The film is a stark reminder of how different women’s lives are in different places

Exactly, and that’s another thing that I want Western women to be reminded of: Throughout history, what we’re living is an aberration, you know? When I met these women and I walked in streets that did not belong to women, when I felt I was in danger, believe me, it just hit me really hard. And I really understood that a lot of us live in a bubble, a sheltered vision of the world. And we don’t realize that most of our sisters don’t have that chance, and I think we have a duty to step up to the plate and try to raise awareness and at least do that. At least understand how privileged we are.

Read more here.