'Bread and Roses' Review: A Heartbreaking Look Inside Afghanistan's Fatal Women's Rights Struggle

‘Bread and Roses’ Review: A Heartbreaking Look Inside Afghanistan’s Fatal Women’s Rights Struggle

When the Taliban took over Kabul in 2021, the city’s women suffered. The Islamic Emirate immediately closed schools and universities, made it illegal for women to be in public without a male chaperone, and forced professionals to quit their jobs or close their businesses. The lives of women in the city have shrunk as the militant group has deprived them of their rights and confined them to their homes.

In the heartbreaking documentary Bread and Rosesdirected by Sahra Mani (A thousand girls like me), grainy cell phone footage shows the Taliban marching from the mountains into Kabul. The mass of bodies flood the streets. Their faces – or what little is visible – reveal no emotion as they cry out about the greatness of God. Gunshots in the distance herald their arrival and warn against rejection. This video, an approximately 10-15 second clip, is one of several chilling snapshots Bread and Roses, which intimately documents the lives of women in Afghanistan after the United States withdrew forces from the country nearly two years ago. Together, these videos offer an unparalleled look at Kabul, a city still at war.

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Bread and Roses

The bottom line

An unusual look at a brutal war.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (special screenings)
Director: Sahara Mani

1 hour and 30 minutes

The clashes between Afghan women and the Taliban forces that oppress them are captured with clear honesty and a compassionate eye in Bread and Roses, which premiered as a special screening at Cannes. The documentary, produced by Jennifer Lawrence’s Excellent Cadaver, offers a rare look at the women of Kabul as architects of their own resistance. Determined to restore their rights and dignity, Afghan women staged demonstrations, endured abuse and beatings, met secretly to plan strategies, and publicly opposed Taliban rule. They sing their pleas in the streets: “Work, bread and education.”

“May history remember that such cruelty was once permissible against the women of Afghanistan,” a participant in the documentary says in another clip. His words came back to me again and again as I observed their resilience in the face of brutality. The document, which is composed entirely of footage sent to Mani by friends in the field, roughly follows a group of women in the first year of the Taliban takeover. They include Zahra, a dentist who uses her office as headquarters for an underground group of women’s activists; Sharifeh, a former government employee struggling to adjust to her life stuck at home; and Taranom, an exiled activist in Pakistan. They shoot footage of themselves navigating a Taliban-ruled city.

Their stories create a brutal portrait of the city, both complementary and contrasting In his hands, another documentary about the plight of Afghan women. That film distributed by Netflix and produced by Hillary Clinton organized around the testimony of one of the youngest politicians in the nation, Zarifa Ghafari, and used her life to speak about the dangers faced by women in Afghanistan in the year before the withdrawal of the United States. But considering that In his hands fashioned a thriller narrative that inevitably positioned Ghafari as a savior, Bread and Roses aims for a more honest record. It also tells what happened to the women who couldn’t afford to escape and shows how they continue to reclaim their freedom.

Bread and Roses it is, of course, a more popular documentary. There is a large narrative arc of women trying to negotiate their participation in movement work amid concerns for personal safety and family obligations. Mani, along with his editors Hayedeh Safiyari and Marie Mavati, piece together the provided footage in a way that gives the documentary pace. The project comes and goes, following periods of intense tension and brutality with peeks into more mundane parts of life. We see Taliban forces tear gassing peaceful protesters along with moments of tenderness, such as when Zahra celebrates her engagement and marriage to her husband.

There’s also a sense of community these women have formed: Videos of activists gathering in Zahra’s office for dinner and conversation show how crucial it is to support one another to endure the moment. In these gatherings, the women discuss their dreams of overthrowing the Taliban, taking over the government, writing their own history, and showing the resilience of Afghan women to the world.

“I wish this moment was a bad dream,” says a child at one point in the film. She’s not even a teenager and she’s already aware of the systems that conspire against her survival. Without education, job opportunities or even the freedom to leave their homes, Afghan women are denied the promise of a future. The importance of a documentary like Bread and Roses it becomes evident during these moments with the younger Afghan women. Mani’s project is not just a plea for the world of viewers to pay attention; it is also a model for the next generation of Afghanistan in their struggle for self-determination.