When the film starts, you’re told that what you are seeing is being captured by a hidden camera. There are shots of crowds of people, of armed guards and then the horrifying scene of a woman in a burqa being executed. We learn immediately that Kabul is a very tough and frightening place for women. When the Taliban were in control they opposed all sports, particularly women's involvement. Then we meet three Afghan women - Shahla, Sadaf, Shabnam – who risked persecution to become world-class boxers.
The film shadows the lives of this small group of Afghan women over the course of a year as they train with their ex-Olympian coach and box in their first competition. We learn that they got there with nothing. Theirs is a poor economy and they lack equipment, a boxing ring and adequate training opportunities. What the sport represents is the heart of the film. The self-assured young women believe that life for women in Kabul is changing for the better. One girl’s father even insists that daughters and sons should be treated equally and encourages his daughter to box. “I am a lucky Afghan girl who has permission from her family to play sports,” Shahla says. “I feel happy that I have a father that supports me. He thinks that girls can be something in the future; that girls can work together with men; that a girl could take a higher place in society.” This mindset is rare in Kabul as even Shahla’s older brother disapproves of what his sister is doing.
At a boxing competition in Vietnam, Shahla wins a bronze medal for her country. Winning a medal calls attention to the female boxers because the win is covered by Afghan TV and with that comes the threat of violence. The girls’ trainer believes that returning with a bronze medal brings honour and respect to the country. He recalls, though, when a man on the street told him that training with girls wasn’t appropriate. “We were in the middle of the city,” the trainer recalls. “If we’d been on a side street, he might have shot me.” The trainer accepts the risks even though he realizes how dangerous his job is and that there are people who are against the advancement and encouragement of women. The girls fear that they will be kidnapped if they are found alone because they were seen on TV after the championship in Vietnam. They are in danger because they have had relations with foreign people by traveling to other countries.
The most powerful and poignant aspect of the film is the unwavering dedication and bravery of both the young girls and their trainer. The trainer remembers a time when girls weren’t allowed to leave their houses or go to school, and now he thinks about the opportunities that they have to train for the Olympics. He believes that being a boxing champion will show the value of girls in the Middle East.
One of the most touching moments in the film for me was when one of the young female boxers said during one of her interviews to the camera that though everyone knows that they’re boxers, they can’t quit now. Her heart won’t accept it. “I want to be the most progressive and bright of Afghan girls; a champion,” Sadaf shares. Boxing is a symbol for value, progress, equality, hope and freedom.
Though the film plays less like a linear story and more like a series of scenes that have been edited together, its message is clear, meaningful and inspirational. We may lose out on seeing the full progression of events in the film, but the appreciation we gain is so much more valuable. Brave and courageous people deal with things that we don’t even have to think about here in North America. What the sport of boxing represents in Kabul is not trivial like whether or not the Leafs make the playoffs. It’s about progress and self-worth for these young Afghan girls and the danger they risk in pursuing it.
Screening: Tuesday May 1st 7:30 –The Royal Cinema, Sunday May 6th 1:30pm