(USA, 90 min.)
Dir. Sarah Menzies
Programme: Silence Breakers
Afghan Cycles follows the stories of several young women who train as part of the Women’s National Cycling Team of Afghanistan. Mostly young university students, the women are passionate about the freedom bicycles present and are determined to continue riding despite the opposition they face in their communities.
The bicycle serves as a powerful symbol: the right to movement, the right to take up public space, the right to gender equality and self-determination. The friendships that are developed through the sport, the intimacy of training and the mentorship provided by the coaches are beautiful to watch. The story of the women coaches is especially touching as their age affords them a unique perspective: a life before the current conflict and a closer connection to Afghanistan’s past as a very progressive country.
The film follows women in two distinct areas of Northern Afghanistan. The bustling cityscape of Kabul is shown in contrast to the more rural Bamyan province and it was interesting to see how the cyclists were received in each place. The slice-of-life moments really stand out as the young women go about their daily lives: studying at university, cycling on open roads, living in the comfort of warm family homes with relationships to supportive and encouraging men. This imagery provides an important counter-narrative to the media’s often-negative portrayal of Afghanistan. Though the film provides some historical and political background, I wish there had a deeper examination of the colonial and capitalist powers that influenced the proliferation of extremism in the region.
The young women in the film start out extremely hopeful and optimistic; however, as the political climate changes there is a tangible transformation in their outlook. The film’s main character, Frozan, is especially dynamic, experiencing major life changes over the course of the film. It is powerful to see the risks these women are willing to take by putting their bodies on the line, by becoming public figures and by serving as an example of the society they want to live in.
Afghan Cycles takes you on a journey from the sweeping landscapes of Northern Afghanistan to the cobblestone streets of Southern France, and it is a captivating ride.
Hot Docs runs April 26 to May 6. Please visit hotdocs.ca for more info.