Canadian Doc Champions Women Secretly Running Marathons in Afghanistan

The Secret Marathon
Colin Scheyen

Hybrid live-action/animated film 'The Secret Marathon' follows running mentor Martin Parnell and filmmaker Kate McKenzie carrying a torch for women's self-empowerment as part of the Marathon of Afghanistan.

Guinness endurance record-holder Martin Parnell, who ran 250 marathons in 2010 for a charity, recalls the moment he decided to run alongside pioneering women in Afghanistan defying insults and threats to run secret marathons for freedom.

It came in 2015 after Parnell suffered a life-threatening blood clot and facing dark despair one day read an article about Zainab, the first woman to run an official marathon in Afghanistan against local customs. "I got frankly mad that a woman in Afghanistan can't run in the streets, which I take for granted, without being mistreated by men," Parnell tells The Hollywood Reporter.

So he resolved when back on his feet to one day line up alongside Zainab at the Marathon of Afghanistan to support her brave fight against intolerance and injustice. The result is The Secret Marathon, an unflinching documentary with a feminist spirit set to have a global virtual release this weekend.

Among the everyday indignities young women in Afghanistan face, beyond being deprived of an education or career, is being unable to freely run outdoors without risking verbal and physical abuse. "What got to me is these [Afghan] women can't just lace up their shoes to run like I can. When they run, people call them names, call them prostitutes, throw rocks and they even receive threats from terrorist organizations," explains McKenzie, a Canadian filmmaker and first-time marathoner who joined Parnell on his Afghan journey. So, in addition to training to run 26.2 miles at high altitude, McKenzie got set to shoot a feature documentary about Parnell's inspired run alongside Zainab and her fellow distance runners.

But once on the ground in Kabul, McKenzie, Parnell and co-director Scott Townend quickly discovered there was to be no wagging fingers or shooting a documentary according to plan. For starters, mounting security concerns forced Zainab, the film's main character, to pull out of the marathon at the eleventh hour.

"When I first heard that, I was wondering, why am I here?" Parnell says. McKenzie and Townend got footage of other young Afghan women set to run, but many eventually asked to be edited out of the film owing to threats to themselves and their own families.

So, to fill in big gaps in the film's narrative, McKenzie and her team decided, once back in a Canadian editing room, to use animation from artist Kendyl Lauzon to portray the hopes and dreams of women they'd met in Afghanistan. "We used animation to allow their voices to still be heard, but in a way that would keep them and their families safe," the director explains.

The animated sequences of Afghan women and their fight against oppression are juxtaposed with the real-life scenes of Parnell and McKenzie preparing for, and completing, their own marathon run in the majestic Hindu Kush mountains of Bamiyan, northwest of Kabul.

To avoid compromising the security of the marathon itself, the filmmakers used a skeleton crew — which included camera operators Colin Scheyen and Liam Kearney — selfie-sticks while running and small digital SLR cameras to capture interview footage. "We looked more like tourists than a film crew to avoid bringing any additional threats to the marathon participants," McKenzie recalls.

And they kept their filmmaking ambitions a secret, except to race organizers, who kept the location for the marathon's starting line under wraps until the day of the race. Hence the title for the film: The Secret Marathon.

But what couldn't be kept bottled up was the emotions of Parnell and McKenzie as they met Afghan people facing far more setbacks and obstacles from a forever war in their country than anything a small Canadian documentary team had to navigate during principal photography. That includes one scene where they visit a refugee family forced to live in a mountain cave that includes a young child left brain-damaged by an IUD bomb blast and too frightened to leave her doorstep.

"The fact that she was scared to leave the cave, it just struck me to the bone. As I left them, I felt guilty, as a North American white male, walking away from that little girl as I wondered what life would she have," Parnell recounts. "Yes, we have challenges in North America, but there's not many where a family lives in a cave for 12 years, with five kids and the husband is out picking potatoes. This sends me to a place where I'm disappointed in myself, and disappointed in us," he adds.

But redemption for Parnell came in part during the Marathon of Afghanistan itself, where he ends up running the out-and-back mountain course alongside Kubra, a young Afghan woman who went beyond an initial 10-kilometer goal to run the entire marathon. The documentary has as its climax Parnell and Kubra crossing the finish line, exhausted, yet elated, and having chronicled the bravery and strength of the Afghan people amid challenge and conflict.

"What we capture in the film is, yes, war and poverty and violence is ever present in Afghanistan, but there are also people that are resilient and courageous like Zainab, running for gender equality in sport," McKenzie sums up.