TIFF Review: ‘Girl Unbound’

TIFF 2016

4 mins read

Girl Unbound
(Pakistan/Canada/Hong Kong/South Korea, 80 min.)
Dir. Erin Heidenreich
Programme: TIFF Docs (World Premiere)


Before Malala Yousefzai became an icon for women’s rights by taking a bullet for speaking out for equal education, fellow Pakistani Maria Toorpakai Wazir defied the Taliban by championing a girl’s right to play sports. Girl Unbound profiles Toorpakai as director Erin Heindenreich follows the star squash player from the courts of Toronto to the streets of her native Pakistan. Toorpakai currently trains in Toronto with coach Jonathan Power (who is one of the film’s producers), but practicing her sport in Canada isn’t all about using conveniences and facilities to hone her technique. As a strong female role model for young Muslim girls around the world, the Taliban sees her as a threat. Toorpakai’s freedom to live and practice squash is dependent on living abroad, given the current political situation at home. Girl Unbound reveals Toorpakai’s perseverance in the face of adversity as she and her family take a stand for what is right.

Heidenreich lets the 25-year-old Toorpakai tell her story as interviews mix with archival footage to show the squash player’s growth as an athlete and an icon. The doc tells how she defies the Taliban by playing sports without a veil. proving that girls have every right to same pleasures their male peers enjoy. Girl Unbound explores this aspect particularly well as Toorpakai and her father, Shamsul, explain how Maria began athletics by posing as a boy. Shamsul, a compassionate and supportive advocate for his daughter, recounts his trick of registering Maria as Genghis Khan for weightlifting classes in which she grew her confidence bench press by bench press. When Toorpakai’s interest turns to squash, however, is when her confidence soars and her athleticism excels. She becomes a local champion and, eventually, an international star.

However, rising high in the ranks invites the price of exposure. Toorpakai’s climb coincides with spurts of puberty and she struggles to hide her gender as she grows through adolescence. These changes bring the ire of some community members and, quickly, the Taliban, as Toorpakai’s veil-less pursuit of athletics goes against every traditional rule enforced by the regime. Threats against her family are immediate and ongoing, but the Taliban only fuels Maria’s passion.

Girl Unbound features some eye-opening footage as Heindenrich joins Toorpakai on a trip back to Pakistan. Calls from the Taliban follow the family everywhere as they visit friends in the country or prepare for Maria’s next match. The film shows the ever-present possibility of death for Toorpakai for something a seemingly harmless as sport. Her family, however, shows unwavering strength. This robust and lean doc is tense and gripping as it builds to match point.

Success in the courts shows Toorpakai’s strength of character and she uses her growing celebrity to offer an alternative image to the negative perceptions of Islam in the shadow of the Taliban. She’s a role model for girls around the world. Heidenrich’s rousing doc shows that there’s much more at stake than a gold medal whenever Toorpakai takes the court. Girl Unbound is an inspiring act of resistance.

TIFF runs Sept. 8 – 18. Please visit tiff.net for more information.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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