‘Bread and Roses’ Review: A Harrowing Look Inside the Fatal Fight for Women’s Rights in Afghanistan

When the Taliban seized Kabul in 2021, the women of the city suffered. The Islamic Emirate immediately shut down 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. Life for the women in the city shrank, as the militant group stripped away their rights and confined them to their homes.

In the harrowing documentary Bread and Roses, directed by Sahra Mani (A Thousand Girls Like Me), grainy cellphone footage shows the Taliban marching from the mountains and into Kabul. The mass of bodies floods the streets. Their faces — or what little is visible — reveal no emotions as they yell about God’s greatness. Gun shots in the distance announce their arrival and warn against refusal. This video, a roughly ten- to 15-second clip, is one of several chilling snapshots in Bread and Roses, which intimately documents life for 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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The clashes between Afghan women and the Taliban forces oppressing them is captured with clear-eyed honesty and a compassionate eye in Bread and Roses, which premiered as a special screening in Cannes. The documentary, produced by Jennifer Lawrence’s Excellent Cadaver, offers a rare look at women in Kabul as architects of their resistance. Determined to restore their rights and dignity, Afghan women have organized demonstrations, borne abuse and beatings, convened secretly to strategize, and publicly opposed Taliban rule. They chant their demands in the streets: “Work, bread and education.”

“May history remember that once upon a time, such cruelty was permitted against the women of Afghanistan,” says one documentary participant in another clip. Her words repeatedly returned to me as I watched their resilience in the face of brutality. The doc, which is entirely composed of footage sent to Mani by friends on the ground, roughly follows a group of women in the first year of the Taliban takeover. They include Zahra, a dentist who uses her practice as a headquarters for an underground group of women’s activists; Sharifeh, a former government employee who struggles to adjust to her life stuck at home; and Taranom, an activist exiled in Pakistan. They shoot footage of themselves navigating a Taliban-ruled city.

Their stories create a brutal portrait of the city, one that both complements and counters In Her Hands, another documentary about the plight of Afghan women. That Netflix-released and Hillary Clinton-produced film organized itself around the testimony of one of the nation’s youngest politicians, Zarifa Ghafari, and used her life to talk about the dangers faced by women in Afghanistan in the year leading up to the U.S. withdrawal. But whereas In Her Hands fashioned a thriller-esque narrative that inevitably positioned Ghafari as a savior, Bread and Roses aims for a more honest register. It also chronicles what happened to the women who could not afford to escape, and shows how they continue to reclaim their freedom.

Bread and Roses is, naturally, a more diffuse documentary. There’s a loose narrative arc of the women trying to negotiate their participation in movement work amid concerns of personal safety and family obligations. Mani, along with her editors Hayedeh Safiyari and Marie Mavati, stitches together the supplied footage in a way that gives the documentary rhythm. The project ebbs and flows, following up periods of intense tension and brutality with peeks into more mundane parts of life. We see Taliban forces tear-gassing peaceful demonstrators alongside moments of tenderness, as when Zahra celebrates her engagement and marriage to her husband.

There’s also a sense of the community these women have formed: Videos of activists gathering at Zahra’s office for dinner and conversation show how critical supporting one another is to enduring the moment. In these meetings, the women discuss their dreams of overruling the Taliban, of taking over the government, of writing their own histories and of showing the world the resilience of Afghan women.

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

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