Afghan Cycles


Roxie Theatre Sun, Jun 3, 2018 5:01 PM
Film Info
Director:Sarah Menzies
Film Category:Women
Middle East
Running Time:90 min.
Year of Release:2018
Premiere:Caliornia Premiere


What lengths would you go to in order to ride a bicycle? The bicycle may seem a simple form of transportation and sport, but for women around the world it can be a tool of empowerment. Afghan Cycles follows a new generation of young Afghan women who are pedaling their own revolution, aggressively challenging gender and cultural barriers using the bicycle as a literal and metaphorical vehicle for freedom, empowerment and social change.

Gender violence and oppression make Afghanistan one of the most challenging places in the world to be a woman. In a country where even straddling a bicycle seat is considered immoral, the simple act of cycling makes these women cyclist’s revolutionaries. The women profiled in Afghan Cycles are ushering in a new era for a country slowly awakening to global influence and cultural change in their traditionally male-dominated society.

In Afghan Cycles, we use the bicycle to tell a story of women’s rights - human rights - and the struggles faced by Afghan women on a daily basis, from discrimination to abuse, to the oppressive silencing of their voices in all aspects of contemporary society. Marginalized and severely discriminated against under the Taliban, today’s Afghan women enjoy minimal constitutional rights, but gender bias still runs deep.

The film follows a group of women training and road racing as part of the Women’s National Cycling Team in Kabul. The obstacles they face at times seem insurmountable - corruption, national instability, immediate threats from the Taliban - yet their story represents progress towards empowerment that many Muslim women worldwide are desperately trying to obtain. We see them making major life decisions for themselves - while some opt for furthering their education and careers, others are getting married and starting families. But for some, the danger of being a female athlete in Afghanistan can prove too much, leading to personal and family threats. The fate of one of the major characters is in limbo when she decides to flee to France to secure a better situation and future for herself and her family.

In contrast to the National Team, we move to the shadows of the Buddha that once overlooked the Bamiyan Valley in Central Afghanistan, and profile a women’s mountain biking group that commutes to school and runs errands on their bicycles -- a simple change with huge impact on education, self-sufficiency, and a shift in public perception of women on bicycles across the

Muslim world. However it does not come easy -- they face backlash from the community and local Mullah who do not think it is culturally appropriate for women to be cycling in public, but the team perseveres. Afghan Cycles spans a four-year period, from 2013 to 2017. As the stories of these brave women develop and evolve, the security situation in Afghanistan worsens. Women bear the brunt of this shift, and as Afghanistan deals with growing security threats, it jeopardizes these female riders and Afghan women as a whole.

Director’s Statement

In the spring of 2013, I arrived in Kabul with the intent of making a short film about the Women’s National Cycling Team of Afghanistan. I figured that a cycling centric film with the country of Afghanistan as the backdrop would make for an unlikely, yet compelling story. At that point in my career, I was getting established as an adventure filmmaker, and the story of these Afghan women seemed perfect for the path my work had taken me on thus far.

Within an hour of landing and taking in my surroundings from the safety of our car, I knew that this was going to have to go much deeper than the story I originally sought to tell. I met the girls that afternoon, and they looked brave, stoic, and beautiful. Sitting there with them on that first introduction, I realized how little I knew about them or their backgrounds. In that moment, I felt so lucky to be meeting them, and honored that they were willing to open up their world to me.

That initial trip essentially turned into a scouting trip for a much larger story, and in the five years since, I have dedicated my time to getting to know them and documenting their lives not just as cyclists, but as young women making important decisions about their future. Over that time, the story has evolved. The women I first met in 2013 were young and idealistic. They barely flinched when talking about the dangers and risks of getting on a bicycle. They are of a generation whose parents told them that the future of Afghanistan was in their hands, and they could do anything they wanted.

This optimism began to shift in 2015 as the security throughout the country worsened. As attacks heightened in Kabul, they felt the danger first hand. It was the first time in their adult lives that they realized perhaps they couldn’t change the future of Afghanistan - at least not yet. At this point, the team had gained a large following. They had been written up in every major news outlets, they were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize; they were becoming celebrities in their own country. But not everyone who heard their story supported what they were doing, and the personal threats increased.

In 2016, several members of the National Team went to a race in France. Upon arrival at the airport in Paris, one of them seized the opportunity and ran away, leaving before she could say goodbye to her teammates or coach. This was not premeditated, it was not thought out. However, Frozan had been receiving threats because she was a cyclist, and she saw this as an opportunity to save herself and her family. Hearing the news of Frozan running away made me realize how bad things had really gotten. She was faced with a decision - stay in Afghanistan but stop riding, or leave her home and family and everything she knew for a life unknown in the hopes that she would be able to keep cycling.

The original concept for this film was focused solely on cycling, but has since evolved into a coming of age story as we witness these brave, optimistic girls grow up to be strong, confident women who will do anything to protect their family while still following their passion of cycling. Following Frozan as she sets up a new life for herself in France has personalized the refugee crisis for me in a very impactful way. She has struggled to get asylum, she spent the winter months homeless, and has done so without understanding the language. But she is resilient and is finding her way, and sharing her story of determination and passion.