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A Monstrous Betrayal

Caroline Fourest’s ‘Sisters in Arms’ arrives just in time for the Ottoman Anschluss against Syrian Kurdistan

Bernard-Henri Lévy
October 10, 2019
Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters pose for a photo with the American flag on stage after a SDF victory ceremony announcing the defeat of ISIL in Baghouz was held at Omer Oil Field on March 23, 2019 in Baghouz, Syria.Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images
Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters pose for a photo with the American flag on stage after a SDF victory ceremony announcing the defeat of ISIL in Baghouz was held at Omer Oil Field on March 23, 2019 in Baghouz, Syria.Photo: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

It’s a serious film.

I was told that theater operators were immediately intimidated by its tragic power.

But I rushed to see French journalist and feminist activist Caroline Fourest’s Sisters in Arms.

And I have to say that not in a very long time have I been so moved by a film (of this sort).

It is the story of a batallion thrown into war against the Islamic State in a land that is never named but is obviously a composite of Iraqi and Syrian Kurdistan.

The women are Kurds.


French, Italian, American.

In fact, they’re an international brigade of volunteers engaged, as in Spain in 1936, in a battle against fascism, which today wears the mask of Islamic extremism.

On one day, they liberate a village.

On another, they go to the rescue of (a column) of refugees on the other side of the frontline.

On a third, a sniper takes out a jihadist pausing at a checkpoint with his cargo of women destined to be sold like cattle in the slave market of Mosul.

On yet another, we watch a battle in pickup trucks worthy of a Howard Hawks western, in which the fighters face an ISIS unit that is supported by one of those armored suicide trucks that were used to terrorize the Peshmerga, rolling fortresses packed with explosives and careening forward at full speed.

The next day we come into an apparently deserted village in which every house is a booby trap, where each stone, each toy, each abandoned Koran may be rigged to explode. Suddenly the eerily quiet village erupts into a terrifying battle, hand to hand, street by street, a storm of blood and steel that recalls the most powerful scenes of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker.

I happen to know some of the places where the action is set.

In Iraq, I filmed warriors similar to those in Fourest’s film, women who scared the hell out of the jihadists, who were better terrorists than they were fighters: brave when it was time to behead a hostage but much less bold when faced with women (of mettle).

And in Mosul, I also filmed the neighborhood of Al-Zohur—or was it Gogjali, or Qadisiya—where Fourest’s main character, who saw her father killed before her eyes and the rest of the family taken into captivity, is detained, repeatedly raped, and tortured before finally managing to escape.

Well, I was amazed by the authenticity of those scenes.

I felt as if I were back on that hill above Bashiqa, where a young fighter who might have been a sister of Caroline Fourest’s heroines took a bullet to the heart as we filmed the battle.

I trembled for the two hours of the screening as if I were there with those soldiers, so beautiful, so brave, and at times so mordantly funny, soldiers who know that the morons opposing them believe that being killed by a woman blocks their way to paradise and its 72 virgins—but who also know (and here the film reaches a nearly unbearable level of tension) that they must keep one last cartridge in the breech or one last grenade on their belt because even such an enemy as this may sometimes gain the upper hand.

Formally, the film is (quite) beautiful.

It is admirably framed, lit, set, and acted.

Meeting all of the requirements of the genre, it is a true war film of the sort that few women have made. (A feminist war film.)

And two recent events, alas, add to its timeliness and importance.

One is the fact that the ISIS hydra is again raising its head, not only over the lands that made up its former caliphate, but elsewhere as well, including in France, where its fanatics managed to strike deep within the (holy of holies of ) police headquarters in Paris this past week, killing four courageous officers.

The other event, announced at the very moment I was drafting this review, is the latest infuriating betrayal by Trump of northern Syria—the monstrously cynical and spineless “enjoy!” that the United States has tossed out to the henchmen of Erdogan’s Turkish state, inviting them to help themselves to what’s left of Syrian Kurdistan. In short, an Ottoman Anschluss blessed by the very Westerners, or in any case Americans, whose most dependable allies in the war against the barbarity of the Islamic State were and remain the Kurds.

This is Trump’s greatest failure—and that’s saying something.

This is what will bring him, if not impeachment, then the certain scorn of history.

The world has taken note of this grave moral mistake, as have Americans from both sides of the political divide.

May the rest of the world take notice of Trump’s forfeiture before it’s too late. May Europe, and France in particular, raise before the international community the crime unfolding against our allies.

We owe the Kurds for the blood they shed in Kobane, Raqqa, Qaraqosh, and Kirkuk.

We are the guardians of these sisters and brothers in arms who, at the darkest hour, stood up in our stead and for our security.

In Paris, New York, and across the West, this is yet another reason to recommit ourselves to a noble story of honor and valor that is anything but fiction.


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Bernard-Henri Lévy is a philosopher, activist, filmmaker, and author of more than 45 books including The Genius of Judaism, American Vertigo, Barbarism with a Human Face, Who Killed Daniel Pearl?, and The Empire and the Five Kings. His forthcoming book, Israel Alone, will be released on Sept. 10, 2024.

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