This is a project we can seriously get behind. A long time in the making, Afghan Cycles is a feature documentary about Afghanistan’s first female cycling team. We may all remember the fantastic feature narrative film Wadjda from a few years back, about a young Saudi girl, who desperately wanted a bike, and to ride, despite social norms against it. That was the first feature film made by a Saudi woman, and met critical acclaim internationally. Now, we are so happy to see this counterside/ corresponding/ complementary documentary, focused on the same region, facing the same strict social norms against women, but this time a true story.
We were lucky enough to grab Sarah Menzies, the film’s director for a chat/ q&a (yes! a female film director too, still too rare) and everything she told us was so fantastic, we’ve included the entire transcript.
Tell us about the history of the project- what inspired you to start it?
This project began in a coffee shop in Breckenridge, Colorado when my dear friend and colleague, Shannon Galpin, told me about a group of young women riding bikes in Afghanistan. Shannon has been working in Afghanistan for the past years, often riding her bike throughout different regions of the country, but she never found another woman who was riding – until, that is, one afternoon about 3 years ago. She came home from that trip excited to tell their story. We quickly made our plans and got back there that Spring to begin production. The film was originally meant to be a short film focused on the National Cycling Team, but over the past three years we have seen more teams and clubs emerging throughout the country. We are now profiling three separate teams – a National Cycling Team, a club team in Bamiyan, and another cycling group in Kabul. All of their goals vary, from wanting to become competitive cyclists to shifting the culture around girls on bikes in Afghanistan.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in the process of the film?
The biggest challenge we’ve faced is security. I’ve had to cancel countless productions due to poor security in country. That has made it difficult because I’d like to have spent more time in Afghanistan over the duration of shooting the film. But that said, it’s opened a lot of interesting doors as well. Because it has taken longer for us to shoot than anticipated, we have been able to witness these girls grow up into young women, allowing us to go deeper with their stories.
Are there any characters in particular that have moved you massively?
This is a difficult question for me to answer because each of the characters in the film have effected me so deeply. There’s Marium, one of the leaders of the National Team who is like a big sister to the girls on the team. Frozan who knows exactly how to make each of the girls laugh. Nazifa is on the National Team too and is in school to become a midwife. She wants to teach others that they should not worry about a woman’s gynecological health being jeopardized if she rides a bicycle. Out in Bamiyan there’s young Tahira, a middle schooler whose brothers bought her a bike and encourage her to ride for transportation. She is a brilliant and determined young woman who dreams of not only becoming a diplomat for Afghanistan, but wants to ride a motorcycle to work when she is. Then there’s Fatima, the young woman who started a club team in Kabul. Their goals as cyclists are not to become competitive cyclists, but rather to shift the public perception of girls on bikes, and normalize it for the next generation of Afghan women. Fatima is a brave and articulate woman who is already making huge waves of change.
How do you balance emotional connection with the project and objective filmmaking?
Keeping a balance between emotional connection and objectivity is the hardest thing about this job. I struggle with that in every film. I work hard to stay open-minded and non-judgmental of the characters. And what I mean by that is that I have tried to rid myself of my Western thinking when I’m there, and come at it from an honest and authentic perspective. The characters are telling their story, and that is important to me. It is all in Dari and only goes as far as they will let me. This feels like the best way to achieve objectivity to me, while still building a trusting relationship with the wonderful people we get to include in the film.
What are your hopes for the film? What changes/ effects do you think it will bring about?
This film is set in Afghanistan, but the themes are universal – a woman on a bike can get to school safely, run errands more efficiently, and use it as a vehicle for transportation, just as men do. This offers freedom and independence because the woman is no longer reliant on a man to get her places. By telling a personal story about this particular groups of women in Afghanistan, our goal is that people everywhere will come away inspired to either ride themselves, or encourage the women in their lives to ride. In Afghanistan, this isn’t possible for most women without the support of the men in their lives, so it’s been important that we tell that side of the story. Men will respond to these men, and that could lead to more daughter, wives, sisters being allowed and encouraged to ride. We were up against a lot of the same obstacles as Americans not so long ago. During our women’s suffrage movement, the bicycle played a huge role in giving women independence. Drawing on those parallels, we hope the bicycle can have the same effect in other places where women have few liberties and freedoms, which is why we feel it is important to tell this story right now.
The film is currently going through a round of funding on kickstarter– so we ask everyone to check it out and support the project. Give them a follow on twitter to keep up to date, we cannot wait to see the finished product.