‘Girl Unbound: The War to Be Her’: Film Review | TIFF 2016

Courtesy of TIFF
A game attempt to explore gender and identity.

Director Erin Heidenreich's documentary explores the world of Maria Toorpakai Wazir, a champion female athlete who defies the Taliban to pursue her dream.

Like its imposing protagonist, squash player Maria Toorpakai Wazir, director Erin Heidenriech’s documentary feature Girl Unbound: The War to Be Her is quiet but powerful, and packs a few wallops over the course of its long game. Made with courage under hostile conditions in the Taliban-stronghold of Waziristan, where even just carrying a camera can be dangerous, the film celebrates the bravery of Maria and her no-less impressive family, and by extension all who fight for women’s rights in the region.

Polished, accessible and eminently festival- and upmarket-cable-station friendly, this should have no trouble traveling far after its TIFF premiere. However, some may feel they’re left with more questions than answers about the somewhat enigmatic Wazir, whose non-traditional gender identity is only lightly touched on. (No one ever uses the word “trans” here, and it’s left ambiguous how Maria feels about assimilating into the trans community.)

Now in her mid-20s and residing largely in Toronto (her trainer at the National Squash Academy is Jonathon Power, interviewed here and is also one of the film’s producers), our heroine’s story emerges via interviews with Maria herself as well as friends and family. Her biography alone would make a striking docudrama. From a very young age, while growing up in an extremely traditional part of the tribal areas, she identified as male and at one point burned all her feminine clothes to prove how serious she was about wanting to live as a boy. Luckily, her open-minded, educated parents – father Shamsul and mother Yasrab Nayab - proved amazingly supportive and when she showed an interest in weightlifting her father helped her to disguise herself as a boy named Genghis Khan in order to compete in youth tournaments.

When her gender could no longer be disguised, Maria took up squash, a sport passionately pursued in Pakistan, and began competing against other women internationally. But the Taliban subjected her and her family to constant death threats for daring to defy their idea of a woman’s place in society, and she was driven abroad.

That, in a sense, is all backstory and the bulk of the movie watches on as Maria returns home to Pakistan to see her family, still living with near-daily threats to their lives. As she re-dons traditional woman’s garb to visit in her old stomping grounds in Islamabad and the tribal areas, we meet her family, from her fearless parents to her no-less impressive sister Ayesha Gulalai who has become a politician campaigning for women’s rights throughout Pakistan, her safety guarded by Maria and Ayesha’s brothers Taimur and Babrak.

Heidenreich’s background in news journalism shines through often (she made video content for Time before making short documentaries set in Africa and India, among other places), especially in the way she stamps establishing shots with datelines, emphasizes political context, and uses music to set scenes and underscore emotional points. A little more subtlety on that last front, with a less intrusive score and a more selective editing style, might have make the film feel less televisual, but perhaps that didactic style will be an asset for some people.

Certainly, those not especially keen on squash might have preferred a cut with substantially less footage of Wazir battling it out at an international competition in match after match, but at least the material more than ably demonstrates her tiger-like prowess as an athlete. Meanwhile, viewers interested in trans issues might rue that more probing questions aren't asked about Maria’s gender identity. She explains at the end that she sees herself as a person, not as either exclusively male or female, and it might have been interesting to hear her expand on that subject. Certainly, her embrace of ambiguity makes the use of no less than two female pronouns in the film’s title somewhat problematic.

Production companies: A Blackacre Entertainment production, in association with Fork Films and Double Yellow Media
With: Maria Toorpakai Wazir, Shamsul Qayum Wazir, Yasrab Nayab, Ayesha Gulalai, Taimur Khan, Babrak Khan, Sangeen Khan, Ilham Khan Wazir
Director: Erin Heidenreich
Producers: Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal, Jonathon Power
Executive producers: Abigail E. Disney, Gini Reticker, Gary Slaight, Lauren Selig, Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal, Kerry Propper, George Kaufman, Elizabeth Bohart, Daniella Kahane
Cinematographers: Mahera Omar, Nausheen Dadabhoy, Zeeshan Shafa, Talha Ahmed, Erin Heidenreich, Jerry Henry, Gareth Taylor, Matthias Schubert, Lee Seongyong, Jeff Chen, Zev Starr-Tambor, Adrian Scartascini
Editor: Christina Burchard
Music: Qasim Naqvi
Sales: Blackacre
No rating, 80 minutes