Sahra Mani : fighting for freedom and women rights with cinema

Documentary is a very powerful tool. I love the way it enables me to tell stories and cry for change.

Sahra Mani is an Afghan filmmaker. Her latest documentary, Bread and Roses, looks at how women in Afghanistan are fighting back against the Taliban. She is also working on Kabul Melody, a documentary which is still in development after receiving the support of La Fabrique cinema de l’Institut français in 2021. 

Updated on 09/11/2023

5 min

Sahra Mani
© DR

How did you become interested in filmmaking and how were you able to realise your goals? 

When I was young my mother gave me a camera and I started taking photographs.  I also began reading international literature. Then I worked as a journalist for a few years. It wasn’t my dream to make films in the beginning. Moving to London was the start of my journey as a filmmaker. I did my BA in Cinema at Metropolitan University and then my Masters in Documentary at the University of the Arts (UAL). Because I came from a background of photography, literature, and journalism I found my place in documentary.

When I was studying at UAL I was travelling to Afghanistan whenever I could. I made a lot of student films there, and in London. When I graduated in 2012, I moved to Afghanistan to continue working. We have so many untold stories, especially about women and children, and about the way in which politicians and political decisions can impact people’s lives and change their destiny for ever. Documentary is a very powerful tool. I love the way it enables me to tell stories and cry for change. 


Your first documentary, A Thousand Girls Like Me, tells the story of an incest victim and her fight for justice. Made in 2018 it reveals the abuses faced by women even before the Taliban’s rise to power. How did you come to make the documentary, and did you face opposition while you were filming it?

It was my first feature length documentary, but I had made 11 or 12 short films before that. I had also worked on two other documentaries which were stopped when they were almost finished because of political issues and the situation in Afghanistan.

The issue was sensitive to Afghan people who didn’t want to believe that incest was happening in Muslim society. The truth is that incest happens in all societies. The difference is that in democratic societies we can talk about it, but in conservative societies we cannot. If women do talk about it they are blamed. They are seen as adulteresses or liars. In the case of my protagonist the judge thought she had had other affairs and was now blaming her innocent father for the birth of her child. Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world, especially the judicial system. It can take a rape victim 3 to 10 years to get justice. Who is going to do that, especially in the case of incest? Also, Afghanistan doesn’t have DNA tests so you cannot prove who the father of a child is. All this made me think it would be impossible to finish the film, but I was determined to finish it if it was the last thing I did.

It was very difficult to get financial support. People thought the subject matter was too dark and that there wouldn’t be an audience. In the end the Sundance Film Festival helped me and then Iftar joined in. But I couldn’t get a TV sponsor. Then when I came to France it took another two years for postproduction.

I wanted to finish it to give this woman a voice. I thought maybe then other women will be brave enough to speak up against rape or incest. And it happened. After my film was released, there were 2 or 3 more cases of women going to the media and speaking up about harassment and rape. In one case a girl had been raped by her mother’s husband. Another case involved a football coach who was demanding sexual favours from players and refusing to let them play in the international team if they refused. It’s great how one film can have an effect on society. We have to see documentary film making as a very serious job. 

It’s great how one film can have an effect on society.

For your documentary, Kabul Melody, which is still in development, you had the support of La Fabrique Cinéma de l’Institut français. Can you tell us more about this project? Have you a French partner attached? 

It is about the only music school In Afghanistan. The Taliban are against music and musicians, so they were always threatening the school. They sent threatening letters to the principal demanding that he close the school. But it continued until Kabul collapsed. Then the musicians hid and are living in fear or have left the country. The music school is now a military base for the Taliban. It is important to tell the story of how this society came to the point where the only music school in the country which was supposed to train the next generation of musicians is now training the next generation of terrorists.

I am very thankful to La Fabrique Cinéma. Before the collapse of Kabul I was invited to Cannes and they provided us with a workshop, training and introductions to other professionals to discuss the project. They gave us an introduction to the industry. But they couldn’t give us funds to finish the film. I was filming from 2015 to 2022 but I am still struggling to find support to finish Kabul Melody. When Kabul collapsed, I was expecting there to be some support for Afghan artists and filmmakers who speak up about the situation, but I haven’t seen it. 


Your latest documentary, Bread and Roses, shows how Afghan women are having their rights stripped away under the Taliban, and how some are trying to resist. You were specifically approached by Jennifer Lawrence to direct the film. How much creative control were you given, and how were you able to make it with the country under Taliban rule? 

I filmed some things before I left the country in 2021. Then I was working with a charity in Germany made up of female filmmakers called Slado. They helped women in Afghanistan with food and medicine and cash to survive. Some of the women started sending me videos about their life. I wasn’t intending to make a film but I thought I could maybe archive them as part of the story of the women’s movement in Afghanistan. Some people I knew kept asking me to do something with the videos. However, after 8 years of filming Kabul Melody and not finding any support to finish it I wondered how I could start another film.

Then I received an email from the office of Jennifer Lawrence and (producer) Justine Ciarrocchi telling me if I had a project in mind they would be happy to support me. It was like magic. I am used to work really hard and still have all doors closed to me. I never expected things could be a bit easier. It was still a lot of work. I had to go to the border of Afghanistan for 2 years working with my team in France, New York, Los Angeles and Kabul while I was in Iran, all the time knowing that my team in Kabul, and I myself, might be at risk. We kept the budget very modest in order to be able to finish it quickly. I don’t know how I did it, but it happened.

Jennifer and Justine trusted me to finish the film. They are amazing women, real artists. They came to the editing room in Sweden to watch and discuss the first cut.

I was aware that Jennifer’s name couldn’t do everything. I had to do my best too. The film is more important than all of us. It is about Afghan women fighting against some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. They have trusted me with their stories in the hope that I can amplify their voices. 

The film "Bread and Roses" is more important than all of us.

What is the origin of the film’s title?

It comes from a slogan women chanted in the streets of Kabul. They asked for bread, work and freedom. It also references an old poem, Bread and Roses about American women fighting for their rights. They wanted respect and equality. It can refer to both these things, but the most important is what the women in Kabul were chanting. 


Bread and Roses was shown in a special screening at Cannes earlier this year. During an interview there you said that you felt the west had turned its back on Afghanistan. What are the consequences of that, and do you hope the documentary will be able to raise awareness?

I hope the documentary will raise awareness by showing the reality of what is happening to women in Afghanistan. 

I don’t know if the world will take responsibility but what is happening there today might come to you tomorrow. Every week millions of dollars are being given to the Taliban in humanitarian aid, but we can’t trust them to spend it on that. We must think that they might be using this money to groom children from poorer families and expand their numbers. That is a huge risk for the whole world because they will not stay in Afghanistan and only attack Afghan women for ever.

Afghanistan is an important geopolitical area. It means that Russia, Iran, China, India, and Pakistan all want to be friends with the Taliban. As some of those countries are nuclear powers it is very alarming. Today we are begging for support for Afghan women, and no one is listening, but tomorrow things will be worse. We are playing with fire. 


Do you know if the film will be released in France?

Because of the writers’ strike we haven’t been able to release the film yet.  We would love to have a premiere in France. It is important for everyone to see this film.

I hope the documentary will raise awareness by showing the reality of what is happening to women in Afghanistan. 

How hopeful do you feel about the future of women and girls in Afghanistan? 

I am hopeful because women were the first to stand up against the terrorists and fight for their rights. And they are still fighting. There are a lot of online schools. Women and girls are studying at home or trying to get out of the country to study. But they need support. None of these dictators stay forever. The sooner we react, the sooner we can stop them. 


Do you have any plans for future projects? 

I would like to finish Kabul Melody and I am making a new documentary called Dream of Great Gardens. It is about my mother’s life and childhood. It’s a combination of documentary and animation. That is in the development stage while Kabul Melody is in the postproduction stage. 

L'institut français, LAB