Southside Film Festival: AFGHAN CYCLES (2018) Review

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“My childhood dream was that I would be able to ride a bike.”

Frozan, Afghanistan National Cycling Team

When I ask my younger family members to tell me their dreams, I get significantly more exciting and unusual responses than a more simplistic “to ride a bike.” Attain superpowers, become the president, save the world, win the Olympics: these are the replies I’m accustomed to hearing. I have no doubt that any American elementary school student courageous enough to tell the class he or she aspires to be a bicycle rider would be ridiculed for lacking creativity or imagination. This is because bicycle riding and baseball seem to be the quintessential American pastimes; little says childhood in America like learning to ride a bicycle. As such, it’s mind-boggling to me that some girls and women must dream of riding bicycles like some might dream of shooting lasers out of their eyes. 

Frozan was fortunate enough to achieve her childhood dream, riding for many years as a member of Afghanistan’s National Cycling Team in Kabul. Her story, along with those of other Afghan women bicycling their way out of injustice, was featured in Sarah Menzies’ documentary film “Afghan Cycles” (2018).  It was this tale of rebellion that brought me to Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Arts during the 16th Annual Southside Film Festival.

Afghan Cycles Trailer

“Afghan Cycles” starts off strong with intense clips of the national cycling team training. Ominous news broadcasts about the precarious women’s rights situation serve as audio in the background. My heart immediately began racing when I heard statements such as “death threats, constant harassment, so predictable that the whole team trains in secret” indicate the level of danger they faced. Shortly following, the documentary introduces Frozan, who rides as one of the team’s fearless leaders despite the life-threatening taboo against women participating in athletics. The documentary follows a number of other women the Afghanistan National team, along with Zahra, founder and coach of the Bamiyan Cycling team, and some of her athletes. All share similar stories of perseverance and courage. Most of the documentary transitions from athlete to athlete, depicting their inspiring narratives. 

Nahid, one of Frozan’s teammates, has a bubbly personality. She offers a heart-warming story about giving her younger brother rides to school on her bicycle. As such, it’s difficult not to tear up when she reveals he was killed three years prior in a suicide bombing. Likewise, it’s easy to empathize with all of the featured team members. Despite facing many challenges, the young women are always joking around, smiling, laughing, and maintaining overwhelmingly optimistic and positive attitudes. The documentary records the girls during their daily lives, including attending class, working, and spending time with family, which makes viewers feel a personal connection to the courageous riders. Every person in the theater was sitting on the edge of their seats, hoping that the young cyclists would overcome their hardships.  

Of course, the odds are stacked against the brave Afghanistan riders. The national team’s coach admits that, despite Frozan and Nahid’s intense passion for bicycling, once they get married, they will be forced to give up the sport. Even before marriage, the athletes still face a variety of other challenges. Fatima, one of the former team members, isn’t allowed to bike because her brother forbids it. Most alarmingly, the Afghan cyclists face significant security threats. Some of the riders recounted in horror a story where two boys approached them with guns during a training session and threatened them. In spite of so many obstacles and risks, the women refuse to give up. Nahid says that “when a person starts a profession they should see it through, even if we have to do it by losing our lives.”

Photo credits: NW Film Center

Security concerns were also the catalyst for Frozan’s lonely journey to France, which serves as the final segment of the documentary. The team travels to Paris for a competition, but she disappears from the airport as soon as they arrive. She decides to seek refuge in Nice, feeling that moving there would be the only way to ensure safety for her and her family. A young woman with no friends or family in France, Frozan had to live in a shelter for many months. While holding back tears, she recounts how, if she showed up too late one day, she would be forced to spend a winter night on the street.  Perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the film was Frozan’s statement: “I thought it was over. The end of the line. I didn’t know anyone, and I didn’t have much connection with my family either.” 

Despite such hardships, Frozan expresses that staying in France was the right decision: “But I was protected. I didn’t have fear. No one was threatening me or my family.” Miraculously, Frozan befriended a French woman who found her a French family to live with and a bicycling team compete on. She could barely contain her emotions when describing how significant this act of kindness was. The documentary concludes with Frozan reuniting with her best friend and teammate Mosama, who was also trying to seek refuge in France. Frozan anxiously waits for Mosama to get off the bus, and the two leap into each other’s arms. In 2018, Frozan was granted asylum. She and Mosama study at the same university in France and compete as athletes on the cycling team.  

As an endurance athlete myself, I can personally attest to how difficult it is to train when your activity runs contrary to social norms. When I’m running through campus shirtless and in short-shorts, I frequently get yelled at and ridiculed for my appearance. As a younger athlete, the harassment was enough to get me to quit, convinced that my goals were silly. Even now, as an NCAA D1 athlete, it’s still enough to sow doubt, and the feelings are difficult to overcome sometimes. The young women featured in “Afghan Cycles” face exponentially greater social and political challenges. Their actions run contrary to what an entire segment of society views as being “appropriate” for women. Ridicule from passersby is the least of their concerns, as they face significant threats to their lives during training. I’m astounded by the bravery and resilience exhibited by the young cyclists while continuing to pursue their goals dispute mounting challenges. The girls showcased in this film must be commended for their tremendous sacrifices and the risks taken to pedal their way to revolution. “Afghan Cycles” combines a story of athletics with one of social change to create a film that is inspiring in every way. 

Feature image courtesy of filminquiry.com

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