In a time when the Taliban took control over much of their lives, a group of young Afghan women, the National Cycling Team in Kabul, risked freedom and safety to ride and race. Now, in honor of International Women’s Day, filmmaker Sarah Menzies is telling the story of these women in her feature length film, Afghan Cycles. We were lucky enough to catch Sarah for a Q&A to hear more about the journey and the story.
Tell us a bit about yourself - who is Sarah Menzies?
Who is Sarah Menzies, yikes! Let’s see, well I am a filmmaker based in Seattle, and have spent the past 9 years making movies. As I look back, I realize that the common thread through my portfolio is that the characters in each film have an undeniable passion for what they do. So I suppose I’m a filmmaker who is drawn to passion-driven stories about people trying to make the world just a little bit better.
What is your film, Afghan Cycles, about?
Following a new generation of young Afghan women cyclists, Afghan Cycles uses 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. Despite cultural barriers, infrastructure, and death threats, these women embrace the power and freedom that comes with the sport. It’s also coming of age film. We were lucky to build a relationship with these women, and over the last six years we have watched them grow and evolve.
Where did the inspiration for the film come from?
In late 2012, two of our producers Shannon Galpin and Anna Brones were in Afghanistan. Shannon has done a lot of work over the years in Afghanistan, as well as bicycled there, and on that trip they found out about the women’s team. After hearing about the team and the women, I wanted to make a film about them. Originally, we thought that it would be a short film, but just a little bit after landing in Kabul and meeting with the women for the first time, we realized that this story ran so much deeper and deserved to be a feature-length film.
Why is the bicycle a vehicle for gender equality?
Obviously as women living in the U.S., there are so many differences between our everyday lives and those of women in Afghanistan. But many of the obstacles that these women face because they want to ride bicycles are the same ones that were faced in our own country not that long ago. In the U.S., the bicycle was an important tool in the women’s suffrage movement. It meant freedom of mobility for women, and also led to other changes like fashion, ultimately contributing to the emancipation of women. Susan B. Anthony once said “Let me tell you what I think of bicycling. I think it has done more to emancipate women than anything else in the world. It gives women a feeling of freedom and self-reliance. I stand and rejoice every time I see a woman ride by on a wheel…the picture of free, untrammeled womanhood.” Today, in many countries a bicycle can mean access to education and healthcare, providing a woman with a bicycle means providing her with a sense of freedom.
What advice would you give to other women hoping to make it in the film industry?
I get asked this a lot, and honestly the best advice I can give is just go for it. We’re living in a time where you could literally make a film on your phone, and cameras are becoming much more accessible. You know need to spend a ton of money in the early days to get all the newest gear. Get what you can afford, start shooting, learn to edit, and start telling stories. I think that learning every aspect of the process will make you much more marketable as you begin to make a career out of it. But until then, just find your voice and start creating.
What does International Women’s Day mean to you?
International Women’s Day actually falls on my birthday, so at first it was just a cool coincidence. As I’ve gotten older though, I’ve found myself wanting to celebrate it more than a birthday because I think it’s so important to acknowledge women - women of our past, present, and future. There is so much to be learned by other people’s stories and experiences, so I try to surround myself with as much as I can to gain a greater perspective. The fact that our film has found a home for itself on International Women’s Day means a lot to me, and I hope that our brave characters’ stories will inspire people everywhere as much as they’ve inspired me.