Sarah Menzies’ feature length documentary directorial debut Afghan Cycles (2017) premiered at the 2018 Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto, followed by its US premiere at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF). The film documents the story of a generation of Afghan women who are confronting gender and cultural barriers, by using the bicycle as a vehicle for freedom, empowerment and social change.
Afghan Cycles is centred around two members of the Afghan women’s cycling team; best friends Frozan and Masoma. They’re separated when arriving in Paris on route to their training camp in the south of France, Frozan decides to sacrifice her childhood dreams of cycling to protect her family back home in Afghanistan. Whilst Masoma continues to pursue her dream, Frozan confronts the daunting challenge of being alone in a strange country, seeking asylum in both Belgium and France.
In conversation with PopMatters, Menzies discusses her visual nature and inner belief in the power of the image as a mechanism for change. She also reflects on documentary as a counterpoint to the mainstream media, and the cyclic nature of a struggle that crosses geographical borders to connect the present with the past.
Photo of Sarah Menzie and friend © Jenny Nichols (courtesy of Prodigy PR)
Why film as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
I had studied broadcasting and political science in college, thinking that in some way I’d get into either radio or documentaries. But I was so young and naïve that it took me a little bit of a zig zag path after college, until I finally made my way back into filmmaking.
In terms of key moments it was the gulf oil spill back in 2010. I was down there representing a non-profit organisation that I had been working for out of Portland, Oregon for a few years. And seeing what was going on, the power of film hit me. I just kept thinking that if I had a camera with me, I could tell these stories first hand and show audiences who these people are, their struggles, and how this catastrophe was impacting them directly.
I was down there for about a week, and when I came home I pretty quickly quit my job and took the leap into filmmaking [laughs], having no clue what that meant. But I went for it and that was eight years ago, and I’m still hoping there’s water at the bottom of that leap [laughs]. And here I am today.
We feel and perceive our world visually, which underpins the ability of the cinematic image to touch us deeply, and impart a powerful impression. The strength of presence of storytelling and art is to humanise or familiarise even those realities that are not our own, of which the visual language is integral to this communication.
I got into this because I believe in the power of film, of telling real stories about real people. A lot of my work has been focused around character-driven films, and I have chosen that as my style because, by giving an audience another person they can empathise with, you can evoke a serious and real kind of change. On a human level, whether it’s an environmental piece or it’s about girls in Afghanistan, or whatever it may be, if you give an audience a person that they can attach themselves to, maybe even see a little part of themselves in, there’s a strong power in that, that I hope comes across.
I have always been that visual person; I really haven’t ever been a big reader. So I think it makes sense on a personal level that I’m drawn to this medium, just because I want to see these things. And in doing so with my work, I want to be able to put people in these worlds and places where the characters are, that in a way for me at least as a reader, I can’t get there. But visually, I thrive on that for sure.
Cinema has the strength of presence to counter the perspective of the world that’s cultivated by the mainstream news media. Is the ability of documentary, and films such as yours to counteract this rhetoric, the source of cinema’s importance in creating a more expansive and considered discussion?
It was important to me to be able to show a side of Afghanistan that was not seen in the mainstream media. The experience I had there was somewhat sheltered; women riding bikes is in the more progressive areas of the country. I wasn’t in these hard hitting places you hear about in the news, but Kabul has turned into that and has become a lot more dangerous; it has gone backwards over the last few years.
But in my experience of Afghanistan, sure, there were threats, there were blasts that would happen a block away from where we were. There was certainly a risk, but the other side of it were the families of these women welcoming me into their homes, and they understood what we were doing with the film by telling the story of their daughter or their sister. I wanted to make sure that came across, that we weren’t just playing up the stereotypes that we hear in the mainstream media, but that we could show this other side.
What has been exciting is that we have been able to do a few screenings, and we are still fresh on our festival run, but just yesterday at one of our screenings in Seattle, there were two Afghan women that came up to me separately. They didn’t know each other, they just both happened to be there and they came up to me and said: “This is the Afghanistan I remember growing up in. I have never seen my country portrayed like this.” And we received that reaction up in Toronto too, when a group of Afghan cyclists came to the show. I didn’t even know that they were going to be there; they just showed up.
It has been exciting to get feedback that Afghans are watching this and feeling like they are seeing their homes portrayed in a way that they have never seen before. As a westerner that’s the best feedback I could possibly get, because telling this story as a white western woman has been a huge insecurity of mine. And to get that stamp of approval from Afghans has been the biggest success of this film so far.
Having just viewed Amy Adrion’s documentary Half the Picture (2017) about the systemic discrimination of women filmmakers in Hollywood, it’s interesting to contemplate Afghan Cycles in contrast. Obviously, the cultural context is vastly different and in some ways incomparable. However, your film helps to build a broad discussion, or rather raise awareness of the extremes of the geographical, social and political complexities of the issue of equality and diversity for women.
This is my way to give them a voice, and my goal anytime I take on a film is to think about what my role is in this, which is giving a platform for other peoples voices to be heard. So in this film that’s letting these young women share their story and get it out there. They have been silenced for a long time and because of the [societal] disgust at their choosing to ride a bike, a lot of these women remain silent. And having been threatened, they have had to stop riding, they have had to drop out of school, and that’s another storyline in the aftermath; not with the film, but with all of the press they received a couple of years ago, and all the momentum they have.
Being a woman in Afghanistan already has enough risks, as is being an Afghan in Afghanistan has enough risks. It has become such a dangerous place, where people are just trying to get to work or to school, or go about their day to day business, hoping they are not in the wrong place at the wrong time. So the threats they face are very real, and then add a bicycle to the mix if you are a young woman, and that makes life even more difficult. Getting on a bicycle is how they are trying to express themselves and get it out there. But it’s becoming increasingly more difficult and unfortunately, a lot of women have been forced off of their bikes because of these threats. There are also a lot of women that are just trying to get on a bike as they’ve heard these stories too, so you have positive and negative stories coming out of all of this.
(courtesy of Afghan Cycles.com)
These Afghan women are in the early stages of their struggle for the freedom of expression, which offers an opportunity for us in western countries to look inward. Whilst our societies are further along in that regard, we are yet to reach that journey’s end. Yet it can be argued that history has revealed equality and diversity to be a constant work in progress, influenced by social and political forces. By looking to the idea of progress, Afghan Cycles reminds us that the journey to freedom of expression is often a gradual and a perilous one.
Yeah, and I think it’s a powerful moment in the film when one of our main characters is talking about what would happen if the Taliban were to capture her. She goes on to say that if the Taliban didn’t kill her, she would kill herself because everyone knows what the Taliban does to you, and it would bring dishonour to her family.
The follow-up question I asked was: Why are you still doing it then? If it seems like the stakes are so high, why would you keep on doing this? And she goes on to answer that any type of progress needs those early people, even if you are killed for it, and it is worth it if it means creating change. I’m filling in the blanks, giving my own interpretation, but that was what she was getting at in her response. They are forging the way and it’s never easy to be the first at something, but they are going to do it anyways, and I think that they know this is going to take time. Unfortunately with the political and security situation in Afghanistan, some of the women, like Masoma, have left to pursue their dreams, but I do think that they are still a wonderful inspiration to Afghan women, as well as women all over the world.
One element that we didn’t end up working into the film — because I didn’t want to put a western stamp on it — was that with what we are seeing now in Afghanistan, there are so many parallels with our own suffrage movement. This is the role of the bicycle and what that did to offer freedom and independence for women. A girl on a bike doesn’t have to rely on anyone else, she can get to wherever she needs to go, whether that’s school, running errands or getting out of a bad situation, or simply the joy of feeling the wind on her face whilst she rides. It represents so much more than I certainly thought, and making this film changed my perspective of the bicycle.
Drawing on those parallels in the late 1800s when we were going through our own suffrage movement, it’s interesting to see what the bicycle did for freedom and independence, but also for fashion. It got women out of dresses and into pants; it challenged the system at the time because you suddenly had women who didn’t rely on men to get around. This is a core of the film that I hope people take something away… and that it will play into their [the Afghan cyclist’s] freedom of expression, into their goals of how they want their country to change, and how they want to start shaking up and changing those traditions. This isn’t something that’s out of the ordinary.
Suffering and struggle is a recurring motif of the human experience for all cultures across the world, and Afghan Cycles echoes this truth for the women of this one country.
In the film we hear from the woman who was riding in the ’80s, in the women’s first national cycling team before the Taliban came in and before the civil war. And the mothers of the women in the film, they all rode decades before when they were young girls. When we started this film we thought this was the first team that had existed in Afghanistan, but we quickly realised that they are the first of their generation. There were many women before them that were able to ride, but we do see this recurring theme, like we’re talking about, that keeps coming up again and again: what forces the woman hiding her face in this film off her bike is the same thing that is forcing these young women in our film off the bikes right now. Unfortunately, it’s this cycle that keeps on happening again and again, and at some point we hope that breaks. You have this next generation that’s trying to push the limits, hoping that they’ll have a different outcome. So while they have their sights on moving forward, you have this country that is moving backward, in terms of security and over all safety.
Interviewing filmmaker Christoph Behl he remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film, you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process, and should the experience of watching a film offer the audience a transformative experience?
Certainly as the director and having worked on it for five years, and having spent a lot of time with these women, I can definitely say that this has transformed me. My perspective of the bike and what that symbolises, and what that can offer young women, has shifted. I sit on the board of directors for an organisation here in Seattle that is getting bikes in the hands of kids that otherwise couldn’t afford them. Gender has nothing to do with it, it’s more about access, and I think no matter the gender, this is an important vehicle to get in the hands of people so they can have that freedom and independence.
We just premiered this film up in Toronto a couple of weeks ago and we’re working hard to put together our impact campaign to roll out, so we can facilitate that transformation that you are talking about. We certainly want this to be a conversation starter; we don’t want this to be that you watch the film and then you are done! We want to make sure that we can help facilitate that conversation about the role of the bicycle and the impact it can have on someone’s life.
There are also the undertones of the refugee movement and asylum seekers as we follow Masoma’s story, and so I hope this can transform thinking in that regard. When someone moves who might look a little different than you moves into your neighbourhood, someone who is coming from a country that feels so far away, then maybe Frozan’s story will show that often people seeking asylum are fleeing their home from very real threats in the hope of a better future. And by personalising that through Frozan’s story, the desire is that we can also change how we view refugees in our current culture, both in Europe and America. I hope to give this a human story and evoke empathy with an audience.
In western countries, learning to ride a bike is a part of growing up, and certainly around the subject of the bicycle, I think it’s important that people watch this and do not take it for granted. Or they at least think about women out there that don’t have the same access, or the same kind of freedom. But the hope is to just get us looking inward at our lives and to think about what the bike is, and how can we can inspire women in other countries where they don’t have that freedom, and how can we open up that to them. We are doing that by partnering with other organisations, working with folks on the ground to make that happen. But in the screenings, just in the way that people think about it, then I hope there is some impact.
For more information on the film and for screening information, visit AfghanCylces.com.