Review: “Girl Unbound” An Inspiring Tale of Bravery and Cultural Awareness

Maria Toorpakai Wazir, World Champion Squash Player Courtesy of Oxford Film Festival

“The Girl Unbound” takes us to the middle of one of the most dangerous places on Earth, Waziristan, Pakistan. Like its protagonist, Erin Heindenreich’s documentary feature is quiet yet powerful, telling the inspiring tale of one brave girl and her no-less impressive family fighting for not just women’s, but human rights during a deadly time.

In a world where sports are forbidden to women, Maria Toorpakai Wazir defies all odds to pursue her dream of becoming a champion squash player. But not just a sport doc, the film is narrated completely by Maria and her family’s interviews, exploring a widely criticized culture through their personal experiences.

Hailing from an extremely traditional part of the tribal areas of Waziristan, Maria grew up identifying as a male in order to play sports. With the help of her supportive and well-educated parents, she burned her feminine clothes, cut her hair, and lived in disguise until she couldn’t hide her true identity any longer. Openly competing in international squash competitions, Maria couldn’t avoid the spotlight. At age 16 her and her family received the first of many death threats from the Taliban for defying a woman’s place in society, after which Maria was driven abroad.

Now in her mid-20s residing largely in Toronto, Maria is coached by Jonathon Power at the National Squash Academy. Power took a chance on Maria after receiving her plea over email for a safe environment to continue her squash training. Living on her own miles and miles away from her family with only a few friends, we see just how deep the dedication and passion goes for achieving her dream.

In a sense, that is all backstory, as the bulk of the film emerges when Maria returns home to Pakistan to see her family who is still living with near-daily threats. It is here when we are introduced to her fearless family. One of 5 children, Maria is not alone in her bravery. Her sister, Ayesha Gulalai, is one of few female politicians fighting for women’s rights throughout Pakistan. Their brothers are the girls’ only security, driving and escorting them to different events. And then there are Maria’s parents. Both educators in the tribal villages, they strive to teach their children not to live in fear.

As we follow Maria on her journey to becoming an international squash champion, we are deliberately immersed in the Islamic culture. From the traditional clothing, food and prayer shown throughout the film, you get to see what Maria’s family calls the “real Islam” versus what militant groups like the Taliban are portraying. In an interview at the Toronto Film Festival, Heindenreich said that it was imperative to capture the culture surrounding the story and that she wanted to show “the human side of the other people living there,” and that is just what we get. We see shots of children playing and laughing, her family singing around the dinner table, poverty stricken villages, and people just like us living normal, everyday lives. Not only are viewers receiving inspiration through Maria’s story, but understanding as well, of a group of people, a culture, and a tumultuous time that we have been so quick to judge.

With everything happening in our world today regarding immigration and terrorism, this film serves as an avenue to explore a different viewpoint. Instead of being on the outside looking in, you are now on the inside looking out. There are two sides to every story and this is a side we often don’t see. By no means does Heindenreich implore any political statements, but the film does not ignore the political and historical context of the time. It was quite refreshing, and at the same time intellectual, to be emerged in Maria’s culture throughout the film.

Heindenreich’s background in news journalism shines through often especially as she highlights political context, uses datelines and titles, and stays objective through filming. But her creativity as a director takes over. The use of music to set scenes and underscore emotional points is a vital part to the film watching experience, which is done flawlessly throughout this story. At times the music will have you on the edge of your seat cautiously awaiting what is to come. Narration solely through interviews allows the viewers see the story through Maria and her family’s eyes, feeling the pressures and challenges along with them. During one scene, we hear a phone call between Maria’s father and the Taliban. Hearing the exchange, the words said and the tones used, you feel the emotions with the family, experiencing fear, sadness, and perseverance along the way.

The timeline is hard to follow at points as the scenes switch back and forth from Canada to Pakistan and Maria is seen at different ages, but the story feels complete by the end. The film ends on a positive note but also leaves some questions unanswered. Maria briefly addresses her gender identity issues, and even though this isn’t a central focus of the film, you still are left wondering whom she identifies as. And even with continuous threats from the Taliban, the family never misses a beat. So among the uncertainty, you still leave with a sense of comfort knowing that Maria and her family are going to be okay.

Maria’s passion and bravery inspires you throughout the whole film. You are no longer watching a documentary, but are right there beside her rooting her on with her family from the stands, experiencing the journey with her. Her emotions and drive strike a cord, one that reassures you that no matter what life throws at you there is a way around it. You will leave knowing that it is not worth sacrificing your dreams to live in fear. Maria ends the film saying that “fear is taught” and “no one is a slave to anyone.” She wishes to inspire young girls in Pakistan to not be held back by fear and to never give up on your dreams. A message that truly is universal.

“Girl Unbound”

Directed by ­­Erin Heindenreich

Documentary Feature

No Rating

TRT: 1h 20m

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