Heartbreaking and inspiring. Two female bicycling clubs in Afghanistan and their struggles to continue to participate in the sport they love in the face of insurmountable intimidation, discrimination, and abuse. Freshman filmmaker Sarah Menzies explores the joy and horror of young women struggling to attain a level of autonomy under a repressive society.
Focusing on two cycle-clubs (the National team in Kabul and one in the more rural Bamiyan) Afghan Cycles shows their training, their home life, and how they deal with the constant death threats. So right there it is a wide departure from the typical sports film. Another break from form is the similarities in the athlete’s personal stories. All of them are driven, intelligent, capable, devout, but also come from highly supportive families because they would have to be. Without the support of their fathers, they wouldn’t be able to leave the house.
“…female bicycling clubs in Afghanistan and their struggles to participate in the sport they love…”
Deep in the DNA of Afghan cycles is the struggle of conservative vs. progressive values in Afghanistan, as demonstrated in the interpretation of the Koran. As the athletes struggle just to be able to train free from harassment, the country itself is struggling with how to interpret and ancient text, and what that interpretation means for the daily lives of its people. On the one side, you have female politicians fighting for the right for women to leave the house unattended, on the other you have members of the Taliban wanting to open fire on a crowd because the women aren’t wearing their hijab correctly.
And caught in the middle are the athletes. Young people who discovered a sport they love and just want to participate. They watch their training schedules cut, and their equipment sabotaged, their lives and the lives of their families threatened. And still, they persevere and continue to compete at world-class levels.
For the most part. One of the athletes, worn down from years of abuse, and fearful for the safety of her family abandons her team as soon as they enter France to compete in an international tournament. She trades one hopeless fight for another, seeking asylum in Europe. But, at least she knows her family is safe.
“…Afghan Cycles shows their training, their home life, and how they deal with the constant death threats…”
One minor complaint is that we hear a great deal about the constant threats they are under, but director Sarah Menzies never manages to capture any on film. I do not doubt their claims, and perhaps showing that might have been exploitive. While we do have footage of a Taliban fighter declaring what he’d like to do to the team, we never see the direct threat they are under, and as such the story feels half-finished.
From a technical standpoint, Menzies never feels the need to dazzle you with her filmmaking, preferring instead to document her subjects. This subtle draftsman-esque approach is utterly perfect for the story at hand.
On the surface all Afghan Cycles is talking about is riding a bicycle. On a deeper level, it is talking about individual freedom and autonomy. About self-determination and expression. About balancing religious belief with objective reality. About the struggle between the ancient and the modern. It is a documentary that forces the viewer to ask themselves what exactly they would be willing to risk their lives for.