Jennifer Lawrence-backed doc reveals a powerful resistance against the Taliban amongst Afghan women

Bread and Roses

Source: Cannes Film Festival

‘Bread And Roses’

Dir: Sahra Mani. Afghanistan, US. 2022. 93 mins.

The fall of Kabul in August 2021 returned Afghanistan to the grip of Taliban rule. Sahra Mani’s documentary Bread And Roses uses the experiences of three Afghanistan women to convey the devastating wider impact on the lives of women facing the loss of basic rights. Mani previously directed A Thousand Girls Like Me (2018) which told the story of a young Afghan woman seeking to expose the abuse within her family and the failings of the country’s judicial system, and her latest work confirms her ability to illustrate big themes through the emotional experiences of individuals. Here, personal tales help illuminate the national story in a work of powerful, poignant testimony that should attract documentary channels and streamers. The backing of Jennifer Lawrence’s production company Excellent Cadaver could help boost the film’s profile following a Cannes world premiere.

A celebration of resistance rather than a lamentation for what has been lost

Bread And Roses starts by depicting what had become normal life in Kabul. A busy market is filled with produce and customers. Carefree children play together. A beautiful woman walks the streets in colourful attire. Mani makes the notion of this being the calm before the storm quite literal with a rumble of thunder on the soundtrack and a lightning strike. Masoud Sekhavat Doust’s plaintive score also introduces a sense of melodrama into a documentary that otherwise allows the women and their stories to speak for themselves.

We are then introduced to the three women who form the core of the film. Zahra Mohammadi is a dentist who has just celebrated her engagement to Omid. Taranom Seyedi is an activist. Sharifa Movahidzadeh has been working as a government employee and is now required to stay at home. All of them have a slightly different response to what is happening in Afghanistan, but ultimately find themselves on the same path of resistance and potential exile.

The video diaries of these women provide a valuable record of what daily life was like in the initial months of the Taliban regime. Outrage at the way women are treated results in street protests that are met with beatings, tear gas and arrest. There is a sense of disbelief that the right to an education, to work and to live an independent life can all be snatched away in an instant. Mani’s own filming captures a sense of a surface normality concealing a world that has been turned upside down. The market is still open, some children play and the seasons still change through a snow-dusted winter and the blossom of spring. Kabul is a beautiful city in which ugly oppression is unfolding.

We are reminded throughout of the dangers in bearing witness to what is happening. Journalists and photographers are beaten. People can “disappear” once they are arrested. Resistance takes many forms. In one scene, Sharifa stands at her widow, the sun shining on her exposed face as she listens to music. It is a moment of normality, entirely forbidden under Taliban rule.

The video dairies allow us privileged access to the women as Zahra becomes a leading activist, Taranom suffers the pain of exile in Pakistan and Sharifa is slowly radicalised. Initially accepting that she can no longer work and must stay at home, she later risks her life with clandestine acts of protest.

Despite everything that happens in Afghanistan, the women remain filled with hope for the future. Chants of “Work, Bread and Education” are still heard in the streets. Angry young children hold a promise for the future. We hear the defiant belief that the next President of Afghanistan will be a woman. Bread And Roses conveys the full nightmare of what has happened to women in Afghanistan, but it becomes a celebration of resistance rather than a lament for what has been lost. 

Production company: Excellent Cadaver, The Eyan Foundation

International sales: LBI Entertainment.

Producers: Jennifer Lawrence, Justine Ciarrochi, Sahra Mani

Cinematography: Abdul Sami Murtaza

Editing: Hayedeh Safiyari, Marie Mavati

Music: Masoud Sekhavat Doust