By Ali Moosavi.

For these girls it was such an intense month of failed attempts, sleepless nights, terrifying moments that at the end was sort of a blur. While they have memories of how they felt in those moments, it was on me to figure out the timeline. I had to lay out everything that I had and allow the material to dictate the story.”

One of the enduring images of the 70’s is people clinging to US helicopters evacuating personnel out of Cambodia in April 1975. One recent image bears many similarities to that is of a swarm of people trying to get into a plane evacuating people out of Afghanistan in August 2021. Both images are unforgettable, disturbing, and have haunted the respective US administrations. One group of people who managed to flee the Taliban in Afghanistan were the Afghan National Women Soccer Team. By editing footage shot by the members of the soccer team and interviewing those working behind the scenes, director Marie Margolius in her documentary Ayenda/Future presents this escape from the girls’ viewpoint. We also see that behind the scenes agencies such as CIA and USAID were involved and a key figure acting as liaison between the agencies and the girls was Farkhunda, an Afghan-Canadian member of the team, who plays for a professional women soccer team in Holland. It was obviously an extremely hazardous operation and it took a few attempts to succeed and fly the girls to Portugal. Since the operation could only succeed with limited people, the girls had to make very difficult choices as to who to take with them; in many cases it involved choosing between father and mother.

Though it was a commendable operation and the girls and their families are extremely grateful to USA for getting them out, it is nevertheless a drop in the ocean. The condition of women in Afghanistan has gone from bad to worse since and these girls were lucky that they had a high profile and were selected. There will be many who will applaud the organizers of this daring operation and also those who will regard it as a publicity stunt designed to cover US Government’s shortcomings in getting more people out of Afghanistan. One of the executive producers of the film is comedian and talk show host, Trever Noah.

How did you get involved with this project?

When the Taliban took over in 2021 there were a whole bunch of stories about groups of people whose lives were in danger under Taliban rule. I have played soccer my whole life and so gravitated towards this story. I started calling around to journalist friends I knew. I worked at ESPN for a long time so I had a lot of connections in the sports world. I tried to t make sense of what was happening and why these young women were in danger simply for being athletes. I got in touch with this guy who was really at the center of the effort to get the girls of the Afghanistan National Team out. He explained to me that it was a dangerous and precarious effort and he would call me back when the girls were safe. He called me back months later and told me that they were on their way to Portugal where they had sought and received asylum from the Portuguese government. I got on a plane 24 hours later and flew to Portugal with a camera operator and started filming with the girls pretty much as soon as they landed and tried to tell their story over the course of the next year and a half.

The guy you’re talking about is that the CIA agent that we see in the documentary?

It was another guy who played a similar role.  He was a veteran and didn’t work for the government and worked behind the scenes. This was a really big operation and there were hundreds of people who contributed to this effort to get the girls out.

The condition for all the women in Afghanistan is pretty dire and by all reports is getting worse by the minute. It seems a lot of effort was put into bringing out this particular group of women out. Why were these girls selected for rescue?

It’s a great question and I would have to assume there is a lot of luck that these girls were chosen out of so many who were in danger but it’s also a credit to their bravery. It took a lot of courage to assess the situation, reckon with the fact that being a woman in Afghanistan under Taliban rule was going to be brutal and then have the bravery to try to get out because it was a really dangerous journey for the girls. They were lucky because they were part of this national team program and had advocates, particularly in the Afghan Football Federation whose took the stand that any woman who plays for our federation is now going to be in danger in some way; their name is on a roster that’s out in the world, their pictures are on our social media and our website, they were in a way public figures. All women in Afghanistan were of course at risk and are very much still but I think the fact that these young women were publicly doing something that is so contrary to everything that the Taliban stands for, individuality as a woman, self-expression, being out in the world as a participating member of society, I do think they were put at an increased risk.

The many failed attempts of the girls to get out was filmed on their cell phones. It must have taken quite an effort to edit them into a coherent story.

The girls and Farkhunda sent me thousands of assets; voice memos that I had to have translated, images, text messages, videos, and it was an enormous puzzle that I spent the better part of a year trying to figure out. For these girls it was such an intense month of failed attempts, sleepless nights, terrifying moments that at the end was sort of a blur. While they have memories of how they felt in those moments, it was on me to figure out the timeline. I had to lay out everything that I had and allow the material to dictate the story. But there are a lot of details of the story that you don’t see because it’s a short film and the format just doesn’t allow for it. So there were a lot of decisions that had to be made once I had a grasp of the timeline of events.

There’s an immense amount of love and pride for the place that these girls came from and I don’t know what it would take geopolitically for that to be a possibility, but I know there are certainly holding out hope for [returning].”

We see a couple of girls having to make a choice between their father and mother to take with them. Both girls elect to take their father even though the condition of women in Afghanistan is far worse than men. Did you discuss this choice with them?

I think obviously every girl and every family was different, but I do think that observation was true pretty much across the board. The women were accompanied by men most of the time. I think there were a few reasons for that. One is that the Taliban requires that women when they are out of the house are accompanied by a male family member. As they were traveling around there was always the risk of being stopped at checkpoints by the Taliban and to be an unaccompanied group of women was really dangerous. So there’s that aspect but I also think there was also a level of pressure that some of the girls faced to take the men in their family rather than the women. Obviously that’s not true across the board and for some families it was the best decision that they collectively made. But there were a lot of girls who expressed to me that they really would have loved their mother to have come, as she was really their biggest advocate and the one who encouraged them to play soccer. Leaving her behind was not their choice. I think it’s complicated and families are complicated to begin with but especially when you have to pick and choose essentially whose life you want to save. There is a level of complexity that I don’t think I could properly explain or attempt to explain.

There must be a guilt feeling among the girls that they’ve left behind so many family, friends, classmates and other people they knew behind.

There is certainly a level of survivors’ guilt. They are in Europe and playing soccer and going to school and have been able to build this new life. I think there is also a level of guilt for some of the girls that they uprooted their families and made them leave Afghanistan. There is that sense of pride for their home which made it very hard for all of these girls and their families to leave. They built lives there and were forced to leave them and building a new life from scratch is challenging to say the very least. I think some of the girls have been dealing with this sense of responsibility and guilt that they actually brought their family members along with them, especially their parents. A lot of the girls speak English and are educated and they’re young so they will adapt to living in Portugal. It’s been harder in a lot of cases for their parents who don’t speak English. It’s going to be harder for them to learn Portuguese and find jobs. So there is also a level of guilt for kind of thrusting this new life change onto their parents and I think it’s been a lot of weight for teenage girls to carry.

One of the girls says: leaving my country won’t be forever.  Obviously they have some hope of returning one day.

I texted Sadaf, who you saw in the film, on August 15th which was the second anniversary of the Taliban taking over and I asked how does it feel and today must be a kind of a sad day for you in a lot of ways. She said it was it’s a painful reminder but added that it’s also a reminder and a motivator for her to be successful in Portugal and get an education and set herself up to be able to return someday. There’s an immense amount of love and pride for the place that these girls came from and I don’t know what it would take geopolitically for that to be a possibility, but I know there are certainly holding out hope for it.

What was Trevor Noah’s involvement and what are the exhibiting and streaming plans for this documentary? Short films (Ayenda is 41 minutes), specially documentaries are a hard sell.

The executive producers that I have on this film have been incredibly supportive throughout. I feel lucky that Trevor ‘s involvement allows for a platform and sort of a magnifier on this story. I think the fact that Trevor is lending his voice to the film is certainly going to help get it out there.  It’s going to perimeter on MSNBC on August 27th and will have a streaming life thereafter and I feel really grateful for that. You are right, short films, specially documentaries that have any sort of advocacy or political component to them can be hard to garner an audience. I think this story is very compelling and so universal in a lot of ways. It’s about identity and family and what you’ll do to hold on to the things that you love and care about. I feel optimistic that it will get an audience.

I noticed one of your future projects is about the US women’s soccer team. Has their early exit from the World Cup dampened that to an extent?

I just got back from Australia where I was there shooting with some of the players on the US team. I think their early exit makes the story even more interesting as it speaks to the strength of women’s soccer globally and how it’s improving and that’s a great thing.  I think there is more conversation around this team given their early exit that there would have been otherwise so there’s plenty of story to tell.  I do really think it’s a good thing the US shouldn’t be dominant and there should be other international competitors and now there are.

Ayenda is produced by MSNBC FILMS & Time Studios, and it can be streamed on Peacock.

Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).

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