Afghan Cycles premiered earlier this year at Hot Docs, and since then it’s been a lot of fun getting to be there for some of its festival tour. I love being there for post-screening conversations, which for good reason often center around where the women in the film are now, Afghan politics and culture, and what it was like for the director filming and building relationships with the film’s subjects. I’m always happy, though, when some questions turn to the storytelling and editing process, and it’s been interesting to discuss a range of topics, including: determining the protagonist for a film mid-edit (and how that can restructure an edit); editing in a language one does not speak; the tough decision to cut certain characters; balancing multiple stories; using the backdrop of a changing Kabul as a main arc in moving the story forward; and more.
Each one of those is something worth diving into, but there was another topic which really stuck with me. I came up multiple times, and would start more as a simple comment about the powerful and chilling inclusion of a controversial voice in the film: a powerful man denouncing women riding bicycles and even promoting violence against them for doing so. It was the type of footage that instantly shook me, and at first there was no question from the director nor myself that it was too powerful to ignore. After all, it shows the very real threats these women are up against. However, in the editing room, I began to feel uncomfortable giving this man a platform for hate speech and promoting violence. Why did we have room for amplifying his voice when we were leaving some of our brave cycling characters or their supporters on the cutting room floor?
To understand the truth of the cyclists’ bravery, we had to understand the threats they experience, so we decided to keep this man in the edit. However, we chose to include him only once and to isolate him to his own scene at a pivotal moment in the declining security levels. In doing so, the idea was to let it be known that these threats are a very real presence, but we don’t hold it his voice in the same regard as other characters’ voices. We worked to make his interview feel like its own scene - even witnessing the beginning of his arrival to the interview – to further imply that this is one person’s view and to not allow his voice to convey the objectiveness of other formal sit down interviews.
I believe it was the right call and that it remains one of the most memorable parts of the film. And beyond the specifics of this film, it was a good lesson in how the honesty and integrity of a film comes not just from the content included in it, but the context in said content is included.