A New Documentary Urges the World Not to Forget Afghan Women

A still from the documentary <i>Bread and Roses</i> Credit - Courtesy of Apple TV+

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, returning the country to the fundamentalist group’s control after two transformative decades, scores of Afghan women were compelled to flee. Those who remained faced a reality in which they could no longer be who they are: journalists deleted evidence of their work, artists destroyed their creations, and graduates set fire to their degrees.

While the Taliban forced many Afghan women to abandon their workplaces and universities, some chose to fight back. Their defiance, and the dangers that have come with it, are vividly captured in Bread and Roses, a documentary that follows three women in real time as their lives become undone by the Taliban’s return. There’s Zahra Mohammadi, 33, a newly-wed dentist whose practice quickly transforms into a meeting space for fellow activists. There’s Taranom Seyedi, 39, a women’s rights activist who is forced into exile in neighboring Pakistan. And there’s Sharifa Movahidzadeh, 31, a government employee who is now confined to her home. The film, which premiered last year at the Cannes Film Festival, is set to be released by Apple on June 21.

More than just a story about the brutality of the Taliban, Bread and Roses is “about the women’s resistance in Afghanistan,” Jennifer Lawrence, the Oscar-winning actor and producer of the film, tells TIME in a recent interview alongside award-winning Afghan filmmaker Sahra Mani, who directed the film, and Pakistani education activist Malala Yousafzai, who served as its executive producer. Ahead of the film’s wider release, the three women discuss how the project came together, the fate of its three protagonists, and what impact they hope the film will have on a world whose attention has been largely drawn elsewhere.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

TIME: To start, can you talk about how this project came together?

Sahra Mani: When the Taliban took over the country in 2021, we saw them impose a lot of restrictions on women’s education, women’s movement. And later on, we saw extrajudicial killing, kidnapping, illegal detention, and a lot of women disappearing. I was witnessing everything happening and, as a filmmaker, I was thinking: what can I do? It was my goal to make a film about this situation and I was very lucky that Jennifer and Justine [Ciarrocchi] wrote an email telling me that if I want to make a film, they would be happy to support the project. That’s how this story started.

Jennifer Lawrence: When Kabul fell, I like the rest of the world was watching from the news and was devastated and desperate to get inside Afghanistan. And so Justine and I tried to look for an Afghan filmmaker, which was how we came to see A Thousand Girls Like Me, which was a stunning documentary by Sahra. So we reached out to Sahra, who was already collecting footage, to just try to support her as much as we could.

One of the most striking things about the film is that it gives viewers a first-person window into life under Taliban rule. How did you manage to do it?

Mani: Because I was not inside Afghanistan, it was a bit challenging in the beginning. [Mani was attending a film festival in Europe when Kabul fell, and has lived in exile ever since.] I managed luckily to train a camerawoman and a cameraman who were still left behind because so many film crews left the country. I focused on a dozen women who were willing to share their life with us and I trained them how to film themselves. We ended up with three characters in the film because somehow we decided to focus on young women, my age or maybe younger, to see how this situation affected them as modern women who were ready to contribute their talent to society but had to be in prison inside the home.

Malala Yousafzai: Afghanistan right now is the only country in the world that bans adolescent girls from completing their education and bans women from work and university education. All the Afghan women and experts are calling out that this is a gender apartheid that the women in Afghanistan are witnessing right now. I think there's nothing more powerful right now than Afghan women and girls sharing their stories in their own voice. And this documentary is that platform for them.

What drew you all to these three women—Zahra Mohammadi, Taranom Seyedi, and Sharifa Movahidzadeh—in particular?

Mani: For me, these three women, their story is not unique, but [it’s] also important because it’s a story of a hundred and a thousand and a million other women under the dictatorship of the Taliban. Because the three of them belonged to three different categories of society, I thought each of them can represent their own category and their own field of work. That’s why I selected them.

What was the process of getting the footage from them? I imagine that, in such a dangerous environment, it couldn’t have been easy.

Mani: I trained them how to take the camera, how to make a frame, how to send me the footage, and, after they sent me the footage, how to clean the camera of their video. If they’re arrested, I didn’t want everyone to know that they’re involved in filming. And then I trained one camerawoman and one cameraman. I stayed on the border of Afghanistan for some time to be able to get the hard drive. I watched the video that the women took and then we would take and I’d [ask] them to correct the framing or the voice or whatever. I think they did a great job, and I really appreciate all those women who shared their lives and the really genius way they found out that this is a way we could raise our voice.

Malala, you understand better than most—having faced the Taliban in your native Pakistan—the situation that Afghan women and girls find themselves in today. What risks come with taking a stand like this?

Yousafzai: I could fully understand how brave these women were, that they took their phones and started recording their lives under the Taliban. What I went through in Swat Valley from 2007 to 2009, in a small part of Pakistan, is very similar to what Afghan women have witnessed, but for a very long time and not just once, but twice. Afghanistan fell to the Taliban back in the late 1990s as well and, around 2001, people were hoping that things were changing. Women who are in their 20s, who were still young, for them that was a story of the past. They were hoping that Afghanistan would be a much better country for women where they could go to school, they could go to work, they could be part of their political parties and their governments, which was the case.

Afghanistan had changed significantly in the past 20 years. And when you listen to the stories of Afghan girls and women, that’s what you hear—that they are so shocked that the past is repeated. But one thing which is very different this time is the resistance of Afghan women. You see it in the documentary how, each and every day, they’re coming together, writing slogans on posters, and collectively—in front of the Taliban, in their faces—calling for freedom, work, and the right to education.

If you experience your life under terrorism, the only thing you wish is that it never happens again; that it stops. And this is exactly what Afghan women wish for.

Read More: The Women of Afghanistan Won’t Be Silenced Anymore

I told my story because I was hoping that people will realize what it is like for a girl or for a woman to live under that. And today, when millions of Afghan women are facing this, I want the world to connect to them, to see their story closely, and to realize that this is not OK. We cannot let this happen.

What can you tell us about the fate of the three protagonists now?

Mani: Our three characters left Afghanistan. Most of the women I knew managed to leave to Pakistan or Iran. But there are still a lot of women inside Afghanistan who couldn’t find any way to leave. Going to Pakistan or even Iran is not easy for them. They can’t afford it. Being able to leave Afghanistan is a kind of privilege that not everyone has.

Lawrence: It’s devastating, and I remember Malala’s book resonated this feeling so well: that the Taliban comes and takes over these people’s homes. Afghanistan and Pakistan, this is where these people live, this is where their families are, and the Taliban not only comes in and takes away all of their rights and their freedoms, but they steal their homes. Having to leave your own country, to leave your own family behind, in order to be safe is just a nightmare that I can’t even fathom.

What impact do you hope this film will have ?

Mani: Our hope is to [show the] international community that the human rights crisis in Afghanistan, it’s a crisis in human rights everywhere, every corner of this world. Afghan women are really hoping that the feminist community, the women’s rights community, the human community [will be] supporting them and raise their voice and don’t leave them alone. From this platform, I’m calling for all artists, filmmakers, writers, activists, researchers, and women’s communities to come together and to support women of Afghanistan because if we don't stand against the Taliban right now, maybe tomorrow will be too late. Because they are international terrorists and we can find them everywhere and they can go everywhere and destroy our world. And remember: Afghanistan is part of our world.

Lawrence: These women need our advocacy and they need our attention. This resistance cannot be ignored, the crisis cannot be ignored because, like Sahra said, this is our safety. Children that are born from educated women are less likely to be manipulated into being soldiers for the Taliban. This is an international crisis.

Yousafzai: We also should support the activism led by Afghan women who are running campaigns to raise awareness and also pushing countries and world leaders to take action against the Taliban. There are legal ways to hold the Taliban to account, including the Crimes Against Humanity Treaty and other options. At the same time, we can also support alternative education and environment programs for Afghan women that are led by Afghan activists in the country and outside the country and it’s so important to look around in your own country and see where those Afghan communities are and how you can help them in their activism and support the Afghan girls. I have seen how brave and strong they are.

Three women have risked their lives to tell their story really powerfully to us, and they are not doing it just for themselves but they are doing it on behalf of the millions of Afghan women who may not be able to make it to the screen.

Write to Yasmeen Serhan at yasmeen.serhan@time.com.