Mountainfilm: “Afghan Cycles,” A Captivating Ride

Mountainfilm: “Afghan Cycles,” A Captivating Ride

Feel the frisson? The big 40th anniversary celebration of Mountainfilm takes places over the upcoming Memorial Weekend in Telluride. Check out the robust schedule for times and venues for films, presentations, the Moving Mountains Symposium, parties, town talks, book-signings, special events and more. Click on the full schedule here and download the Mountainfilm app.

And the buzz straight out of the Seattle Film Festival suggests “Afghan Cycles” should be part of your program.

Scroll down to read a review by Kimm Viebrock, who celebrates the filmmaker and her message.

The trailer should close the deal.

Note: Telluride author Susan Dalton captures Mountainfilm‘s best memories in “Mountainfilm: 40 Years.” Look inside here.

“Afghan Cycles,” in context:

Just one week before Mountainfilm, at the Telluride Literary Arts Festival’s signature event, Literary Burlesque, the idea was to honor the 100-year anniversary of Armistice. A group of eight of the region’s most powerful and talented women embodied several of the many unsung heroines of WWI – ladies who dared to uncorset themselves from the social strictures and constraints – physical, psychological and emotional – of the 1914-1918 era.

Among the feminist rebels on the evening’s program was Susan B. Anthony (channeled by Daiva Chesonis, channeling Charlie Chaplin – in drag).

On bicycles, Susan B. Anthony famously said: “The bicycle has done more for the emancipation of women than anything else in the world. It gives her a feeling of self-reliance and independence the moment she takes her seat; and away she goes, the picture of untrammelled womanhood.”

Frances B. Willard, author of “How I Learned to Ride The Bicycle,” (published in 1895), weighed in too:

“I began to feel that myself plus the bicycle equaled myself plus the world, upon whose spinning wheel we must all earn to ride, or fall into the sluiceways of oblivion and despair. That which made me succeed with the bicycle was precisely what had gained me a measure of success in life — it was the hardihood of spirit that led me to begin, the persistence of will that held me to my task, and the patience that was willing to begin again when the last stroke had failed. And so I found high moral uses in the bicycle and can commend it as a teacher without pulpit or creed. She who succeeds in gaining the mastery of the bicycle will gain the mastery of life.”

That message of self-esteem, self-reliance, gender equality, independence and pure joy resonates through the ages to modern-day Afghanistan, the setting for Seattle-based director Sarah Menzies’ “Afghan Cycles.”

“Afghan Cycles” tells the story of a new generation of young Afghan women who take to the saddle as a surrogate for women’s – and human’s – rights, with Menzies pulling no punches about the struggles her protagonists face to pursue their dream.

Struggles that run the gamut from taunting, rock-throwing and vehicular menacing to death threats.

These proud young Afghani women keep riding despite cultural barriers, despite infrastructure limitations, despite the nonstop abuse.

The sense of power and freedom that comes from their sport is apparently worth the risk.

“…the friendships that are developed through the sport, the intimacy of training and the mentorship provided by the coaches are beautiful to watch. The story of the women coaches is especially touching as their age affords them a unique perspective: a life before the current conflict and a closer connection to Afghanistan’s past as a very progressive country…,” wrote

“I have a feeling of joy when I ride the bicycle,” says Frozan, one of the women, who dreams of proving herself at an upcoming race in France.

“We can pedal like you. Because if we do not stand up for ourselves, nobody will,” says Tahira.

“Afghan Cycles,” a very personal review by Kimm Viebrock:

At 15 years old, my first 10-speed bicycle – a bright yellow Motobecane that I’d saved up babysitting money to buy – meant everything to me. It was freedom to go places on my own, it was speed, and it made me feel powerful. The independence I felt riding was worth the pain of all the hills that I endured. I rode that bike everywhere and put in as much as 40 miles or more some weekends, chasing down all my friends’ soccer matches after riding to and from my own games and practices.

Although as a girl, I’d had (and would continue to have) plenty of people tell me there were things I couldn’t or shouldn’t do, no one ever told me I shouldn’t be on that bike and no one ever threatened my life or the lives of my family over any of those things.

The young women bicycling in Afghanistan, where the Taliban with their extreme interpretations of Islam have influenced societal mores, face a much different reality.

Being 16 or 17 and in love with cycling takes guts and courage in addition to passion when you’re female in Afghanistan. In the documentary “Afghan Cycles,” Seattle filmmaker Sarah Menzies has captured that reality – its beauty and its dark side, their triumphs as well as their struggles – with compassionately artistic storytelling.

Where Outside Magazine described many of Menzies’ subjects as self-deprecating, she herself is also charmingly so.

Standing taking questions at the end of the US Premiere of Afghan Cycles in Seattle, those in the audience who did not already know and love Menzies (of whom there were many – this was her home town after all) were immediately taken with how little ego is attached to this formidable talent.

Chatting ever so briefly afterward before she bounded up the rest of the stairs (“Follow the flowers!”), Menzies mentioned an excitement for the next step, heading to Telluride to bring “Afghan Cycles” to MountainFilm. She was also quick with a hug for a stranger showing appreciation for her work and the compelling story she shared.

Menzies might be “floating” with all the attention right now, but she seemed clear that the focus is – as it should be – on the story of these courageous young women braving the climate of current-day Afghanistan as they follow their passion.

Their story is an impressive one, and Menzies captures it beautifully.

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