Afghan director Sahra Mani‘s well-received “A Thousand Girls Like Me” documented the quest for justice of a young incest victim, and now, Mani has returned with a similarly hard-hitting documentary, “Bread and Roses”, premiering in the official selection of Cannes as a special screening. Produced by Jennifer Lawrence, this film tackles an urgent and timely topic through a committed on-the-ground perspective, capturing the experience of three people, Zahra, Taranom and Sharifa, whose lives as they knew them were effectively ended when the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 2021.
The film benefits from not introducing a voice-of-god narrator, nor a viewer stand-in to guide the audience through an arm’s-length survey of the situation. This is scrappy, up-close and personal filmmaking — which is not to say that anything here is hard to follow or purposefully obscure. It’s more that Mani trusts both her audience and subjects to engage with the actuality of what is happening without the need for intrusive formatting.
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The overarching context for the film is an exploration of what has happened to people’s lives since the Taliban took control of Kabul in 2021, and the progress of brave but under-resourced attempts to fight back. Since 2021, huge numbers of schools have been closed, hundreds of doctors, dentists, teachers and other professionals have been banned from working or going to gyms or parks, thousands of people live under effective house arrest, forbidden to leave their homes by themselves. It’s hard to escape the feeling that the wider world might care a bit more about these human rights abuses if so many of the nightmarish restrictions weren’t overwhelmingly targeted at women.
Perhaps part of the reason for this lack of ongoing international outrage is the widespread misapprehension that women’s rights in Afghanistan have not historically changed very much. In fact, women in Afghanistan won the right to vote one year before women in the U.S., in 1919. The women featured in Mani’s documentary are not mourning rights they never had. They all come across as living in shock, expressed differently according to their different personalities, at the brutal and shockingly swift change in their circumstances.
What is exciting about this film is the time it takes to show the energy, courage and sheer strength of the women who make up the resistance in Afghanistan, necessary in a film that could otherwise be relentlessly bleak. These women risk their lives to protest a regime that doesn’t see them as fully human. The stark societal binary imposed here by the Taliban is very clear. You are either a good woman (and there are only two types of those: well-behaved virgins and dutiful mothers) or a bad woman — and if the latter, you are sub-human and have forfeited all your rights.
Perhaps most heartbreaking of all is a section of the film where young elementary and middle school girls chant that they want the Taliban to go away, knowing that unless something changes in the next 5-10 years that their likely prospects are limited to compulsory housework and marriage, with no education, and not even the ability to walk in a public park unaccompanied.
This film is a necessary howl of rage, one that argues cogently — via the simple expedient of capturing life as it is lived — that to ignore what it happening in Afghanistan is to condemn half the population of the country to oppression under a dictatorship that is both political and personal.
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