Documentary Review: Girls pedal across the “Graveyard of Empires” in “Afghan Cycles”

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The bicycle is one of the most liberating inventions in the history of humanity. Its not just the exhilarating thrill of the ride, the exercise and sensation of speed that makes it addicting. Lives are changed and worldviews expanded simply by virtue of the freedom it affords, especially the young, who use this simplest form of personal transportation to experience places beyond their immediate experience, out of the reach of family control.

That has to be what freaks the mullahs of Afghanistan out about girls riding bikes. “We don’t like it,” men will say. Even in the most modest clothing, wrapped in scarves and long pants, the conservatives of this embattled, backwards country still call the act “shameful” and the girls daring to ride “infidels.”

“Afghan Cycle” is about ongoing efforts by the mostly-city girls in their country to drag it into the modern day, striking a tiny blow for gender equality as they ride in packs through city streets and on suburban highways, part of a national girl’s cycling team.

The girls in the film — Frozan and Zahra, Nahid and Mosama and others — enthuse about the “feeling of joy…I don’t want to get off” that cycling gives them.

They have been featured in TV news reports in the West, “training in secret,” “athletes who “risk our lives” when they train.

As Afghanistan struggles to put its Medieval “Taliban” years behind it, with city dwellers noting that women have “regained the right to work, travel and take part in sports,” you’d think Sarah Menzies’ documentary would be an upbeat celebration of teens striking a blow for freedom in a part of the world that leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to women’s rights.

But as they ride in uniforms of headscarves, matching long-sleeve jerseys and gym pants, they talk of “death threats” and “fighting the stubborn taboo” that so many men outside of Afghanistan’s few cities cling to. The movie isn’t the “feel good” story you’d hope it might be.

Frozan, the daughter of a dedicated cyclist who grew up before Afghanistan’s communist takeover and Soviet occupation and thus learned to ride, tries to balance the rituals and mores of her culture with her yearning to do the simplest things, forbidden by mullahs and their hold over the fundamentalists there.

“I don’t have the freedom to go outside and ride any time I like, or to go outside at all,” she complains (in Pashtun, with English subtitles).  “I want that for the future.”

“Security” is the team’s biggest concern. “The Jihadists put a stop to women’s rights…Girls who want to ride have a lot of enemies.”

The fundamentalist dogma there decrees that “Girls should not do sports, not have educations.” The riders are lectured (we’re told, not shown), hassled by passing drivers, jeered for ruining their “future” (reproductively) by riding and risking injury.

“This is not (your) right,” an Imam says on camera.

And yet, they persist. Masoma was the first in her family to ride a bicycle, and she and her sister Zahra are supported in their pioneering efforts by their father.

“We are role models for other girls, showing them they can live free.”

Menzies probably set out to show just that, and ran up against the same headwinds facing female cyclists in Afghanistan. Her film has little dramatic arc to it, and little uplift. It plays as flatly as the desert valleys the girls pedal through. A filmmaking tip — when your settling is as sunwashed and sand colored as this, white subtitling is a terrible choice. White words over white backgrounds, people wearing white shawls and jackets, is like putting no subtitles at all in the film.

The girls don’t come off as future Olympians, riding their mix of road bikes, city bikes, mountain bikes and hybrids over flat desert highways and down dusty trails. That’s not the goal of most, though some harbor dreams of professional careers.

Younger rider Nahid lost a brother to a suicide bomb attack, and as the team rides past the home of what used to be two ancient, gigantic statues of Buddha — which the redneck culture-fearing Taliban blew up in 2001, we’re reminded of just how monumental the change they want to effect change.

Coach Abdul Sadiq Sadiqi remembers first trying to get this team going in the 1980s — pre-Taliban. It’s proven nearly impossible.

One young present day Jihadist wonders why they don’t “machine gun them all” and a seemingly reasonable mullah explains to the filmmaker that “girls are “precious gems,” that “Eyes are absorbent of all badness” and that he will not tolerate uncovering the girlish parts of their bodies of riding in groups.

His fear, their fear, is palpable. Let girls ride in groups and you can’t harass them as easily. Let them ride bikes, and next thing you know, “Islam will be weakened.”

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But as we see them mount up on their Giants and other global brand bikes, check out the smiles from younger girls they pedal by, the viewer can take comfort that the tide of history is against the oppressors, that girls craving freedom might flee their homeland to find it now, gone with their Schwins.

Someday, though, given time and TV and exposure to a world much wider than the daily calls to prayer, change will come.

2half-star6

MPAA Rating: unrated

Credits: Sarah Menzies. A Let Media release.

Running time: 1:28

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