Afghan Cycles


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Afghan Cycles
"A much more complex, multi-layered portrait of Afghanistan than has been see in the West for many a year."

Susan B Anthony once said "The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world." In remote places, it's emancipatory for everyone. Where the land is too poor to keep horses and nobody can afford cars, bikes are a vital means of connecting communities and expanding trade networks. They can revolutionise local economies. They can enable women, usually the poorest and least able to access other forms of transport, to escape the confines of the home and see something more of the world. No wonder men clinging onto traditional patriarchal power fear them so much.

There are communities in rural Afghanistan where, after marriage, women are strongly discouraged from going outside the home at all. In places where the Taliban still holds sway - and there are more of these that the West likes to admit - such discouragement can take the form of bullets, throat-slitting or burning alive. It's not so bad in Kabul, where women have now returned to wearing bright coloured clothes and taking up space in public, at least during the day, but many individuals there still cling to traditional attitudes and find few things as appalling as the sight of a young woman riding a bike.

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Afghan Cycles follows a number of young women for women riding is life's greatest joy. "I am the first person in my family to ride a bike," says one of them, with that flush of pride one sees in people taking about being the first to go to university. Another grips the handlebars with painted nails, the ultimate symbol of female rebellion when the Taliban were in power; the paint on her right index finger is chipped, announcing that this is a woman who does things. Still another talks about the encouragement she received from her father. It is wrong to think of Afghanistan in simple terms as a place where men oppress women - many men want change as well. "Please think only of the positive things about this country," one young woman urges; she and her friends are striving to help create a country whose beauty and value is recognised by the wider world, unwilling to have it dismissed forever as a bombed-out ruin.

The girls' coach is proud of their achievements. There is talk of them competing internationally and bringing home medals to make their country proud. Watching them race, a wide-eyed young boy says he wants to be like them when he gets older. But it's hard for them to practice because car drivers and pedestrians frequently try to block their way as a means of signalling moral disapproval. Women's cycling is alright as long as it doesn't happen in public, says one cleric, leaving one wondering just how these residents of a city of four and a half million people are supposed to avoid that. He adds that women shouldn't cycle in groups because that constitutes showing off, yet when they venture out alone, very bad things can happen.

This story is shot partly in Afghanistan and partly in Nice where one of its subjects, Frozan, ultimately seeks refuge. What drives her to do this, despite an intense longing to be with family and friends in the land she loves, underscores the darkness at the heart of the film, the undercurrent of terror that makes the simple pleasure of cycling impossible for many. Director Sarah Menzies skilfully illuminates this darkness, even interviewing a man who tells us that all women who break with tradition should be killed, whilst refusing to let it dominate her film. What we get is a much more complex, multi-layered portrait of Afghanistan than has been see in the West for many a year. The pleasure of riding a bike is something most people can relate to, but Afghan Cycles is about much more besides.

"Every time I see an adult on a bicycle," wrote HG Wells, "I no longer despair for the future of the human race."

Reviewed on: 15 May 2018
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Afghan Cycles packshot
Young Afghan women fight for the right to ride bicycles.

Director: Sarah Menzies

Year: 2018

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: US


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