To her pleasant surprise, Erin Heidenreich discovered there were advantages to being a woman traveling to Islamabad. An American filmmaker doing unauthorized filming in Pakistan for her first feature documentary “Girl Unbound” after producing them for others and honing her craft on shorts, Heidenreich shrouded herself in a Dupatta headscarf and would often sit silently as the father of the subject of her film Maria Toorpakai Wazir would explain to authorities that she was part of the family, with the male guards at security checkpoints never bothering to ask her questions – of course, if they had, the jig would’ve been up as soon as she opened her mouth.
“A lot of people put their life at risk to make this film,” Heidenreich said before the premiere of “Girl Unbound” earlier this week at the Toronto Film Festival, a moment for both relief and triumph.
It shouldn’t be this hard to make a film about a young woman pursuing her dream of being a professional squash player, nor should it be to simply pursue that dream in the first place, but so it is with Toorpakai Wazir, who has become an inspiration to young women throughout her country and beyond by becoming a global phenomenon in Pakistan’s national pastime, a remnant of British Empire rule. Initially posing as a boy to break into the sport and sharpen her skills, Toorpakai Wazir has become a phenomenon on the court and off, though her popularity has given rise to death threats from the Taliban, making it impossible for her to live in the country she loves so much. After writing hundreds of letters to squash instructors around the globe with the hopes of them taking her on, she ended up in Toronto where retired squash star Jonathon Power gave her a home and training to become one of the best in the world.
While that story would be extraordinary enough to tell on its own, “Girl Unbound” charts Toorpakai Wazir’s return to Pakistan to play an International Pro Tournament in the face of a culture where honor killings and acid attacks remain a part of daily life. Yet through Heidenreich’s exhilarating portrait, it’s easy to see why Toorpakai is willing to take the risk, desperate to reunite with her remarkable family of activists including her sister and National Assembly member Ayesha Gulalai Wazir and her father Shamsul Qayyum Wazir, who was once imprisoned for daring to speak up for women’s rights, all of whom recognize the unique position they’ve put themselves in to make change. With an uncommonly eloquent and compelling central figure in Toorpakai Wazir, who may struggle at times with her identity as a female athlete and as a Pakistani now living abroad, but sees clearly the issues in her homeland and how she can galvanize others from afar, “Girl Unbound” matches her energy and vigor and just as likely to leave you as breathless as an opponent of the squash player might be after a match.
A day after “Girl Unbound” drew a prolonged standing ovation at TIFF, Heidenreich, Toorpakai Wazir and the film’s producer Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal spoke about the logistics of bringing such a story fraught with potential peril to the screen.
Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal: I had met Jonathon [Power] in Los Angeles once he brought Maria over from Pakistan and she had been in Canada for a few months, and he started telling this incredible story of this young woman and [I thought], “Wow, I’d really love to meet her.” So I flew to Toronto and sat down with Maria, and said “I’d really love to be involved in helping share her story.” That was five years ago.
Maria, were you immediately receptive to making a film about your life?
Maria Toorpakai Wazir: I met Cassandra and for me, it was, like, “What’s going on?” But [she and Jonathon] were super sweet and I could see their vision for that because my father [says], “It’s all about change,” and I could see that [this story is] going to reach a lot of people through her documentary, and that’s all we’re about. Cassandra, Erin, Jonathon and the whole team – I was really happy how much love and support they gave me.
Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal: [When] I started asking around in Los Angeles to look for the perfect director, it was all about finding somebody that had the right vision, that understood that Maria’s story was beyond just sports and it was this heart, the story of this family, and this journey and being able to immerse yourself within that. When I met Erin, she just got it right away.
Erin, you’ve been in the film industry for a while, but directing a feature is something new. Why was this the right project?
Erin Heidenreich: I was directing a lot of short-form [documentaries] for years before that and knowing when you make a documentary, you’re going to invest years of your life in it, you really want to feel really closely connected to the story in some way and feel like you have a really good team. When this came, [Maria’s] story, of course, is fascinating, but then you meet Maria and you’re charmed. She has a lot of both strength and vulnerability, so [I thought] “Okay, this is a girl that, even on some weird level, I can actually relate to her story.” It’s definitely not as extreme, but figuring out how to be a woman in a society that delivers you a completely different expectation than what you want to be, there is some inkling of that I could link to. Then when I met her family, it became very clear. I could see some of my grandfather in her dad, and some of my brothers in her brothers. That’s really where it took off.
You don’t meet the family immediately, which is also an interesting way to structure this. Did it mirror your own experience?
Erin Heidenreich: Knowing Maria has such a very deep and emotional story previously from her childhood, we thought that was really important to get that across at the front of the film, to understand everything she had gone through up until that point before we go into Pakistan and journey into the tribal areas. But she has this totally stunning and incredible family and there’s so many of them that all have their own deep stories so we really wanted to get to know one person at a time as we’re asking the questions about why is it important that she’s going to the tribal areas because a lot of people hear about how she and her family still goes [there], even with it being as dangerous as it is, and that’s the heart of everything for them – to help the people there and bring change. Pakistan is a very complex country and we had to take everything one step at a time. When we were filming, things started to happen that you can never predict. I think it was Alfred Hitchcock who said, “A narrative film, the director is God, but in documentary, God is the director.”
Maria Toorpakai Wazir: Jonathon has been there many, many times [as a pro squash player] so he knows how the country looks, how people are and the culture. Then Cassandra went there and it was nice [because] I can tell a story in my words, but you feel the essence when you get there and you see the house, and you meet the people, so they actually give that image.
Erin went to Pakistan and I truly admire her courage because it’s a huge decision to make. I, myself, find it really hard to go out of the house every time and here are these women, they want to just film to tribal areas and without a Pakistani, you cannot get there from anywhere else unless you’re a resident. My father didn’t want to take her there [initially], so he took both me and my older sister with her so if anything happened, it happened to all of us and she dressed up like us, in our clothes, and she pretended like she [was part of our [family] and she couldn’t speak – always quiet. She had this [small] camera and we are trying to film, so she gave us courage – we protected and inspired each other.
Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal: From my standpoint as a producer, we were always constantly concerned with making sure that the crew was as safe as possible. When I wasn’t with them in Pakistan, I was up all night making sure that I was getting texts and phone calls knowing that they were okay. As Maria said, everyone was in it together in the sense of the importance of wanting to tell the story – do it in the right way – but also make sure that everyone is taken care of.
I grew up in a Muslim country, so it was one of my connections to Maria when I first sat down with her and I have a little bit of a background and history understanding the mentality. When I sat down with Erin, it was one of the things [where I said] “This is what we’re doing and I want to make sure that you’re comfortable with that.” She’s a very courageous woman. She’s traveled all over the world and been in very diverse circumstances and she took this on with her whole heart.
Erin Heidenreich: Sometimes people say to me, “Was I at risk because they’re getting these threats,” and that’s true, but also [with] me being with them, I put them at risk because I’m an American and a filmmaker there without permission, so we were in it together.
It seems encouraging that there actually was even an international women’s squash tournament held in Pakistan.
Maria Toorpakai Wazir: These towns are very secure because they have people [from around the world]. There are even American or Canadian Pakistanis and they buy houses there and leave their families in safety in those places. They [are of a] liberal mind. In that town, they have the facilities – proper gyms and swimming pools and the townspeople decided to have a women’s squash tournament. The woman who decided to do that is very supportive of women’s health and women’s squash and because I represent Pakistan on [an international] level, she was very excited to meet me, but the first time I couldn’t make it and it was a local tournament. But the second time, they wanted an international tournament so I could gain the ranking points.
Erin Heidenreich: It’s the first time they had actually had a pro world women’s tournament in Pakistan in many, many years.
Maria Toorpakai Wazir: There was a lot of security. For example, the tournament might be $10,000, but [with the] money they spend on security, it goes to $40,000-$50,000. The first time that the women’s tournament started in Pakistan in 2007, there was a bomb blast very close to the squash board in a very secure tent/army area, so [organizers] were saying, like, “We’re not going to hold anymore squash tournaments after that.”
Erin Heidenreich: A little unreal. We’ve been working on this film for so long, especially last year in the edit, and bringing something out in the world that other people haven’t seen, I was nervous. But it was really fun standing next to Maria – she had seen it before, but seeing it on the big screen was something…
Maria Toorpakai Wazir: It was new. [laughs] It’s hard to watch myself. I don’t think I’ve watched any interview [of] myself, but then they made me sit and watch and I’m really happy. You feel emotionally down [about this situation], but the movie brings you up. I was so focused on my squash and the happy moments with my family so it doesn’t let me go down.
Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal: I’m just really proud of Maria. I’ve been with her pretty much since she arrived in Toronto and when I first met her and I just wanted to help share her story. That was really about us working together to put a book together for her, which was published last May and to then build the foundation, which is now about to launch. Then to watch this documentary and see Maria grow into this amazing, beautiful woman, and tell this incredible story with this great team, it’s like watching the family leave the nest and blossom. I still get tears in my eyes, but tears of joy because it’s such an important story in today’s world on so many levels. It’s been such an honor.
Maria Toorpakai Wazir: It was incredible to see so many people [at the premiere]. I’m very happy about this movie. It explained the country really well. You see a slum but it looks different if you go to tribal regions – or Pashtuns – and you see the diversity there. At the same time, you’re safe but you’re not safe and there would be people dying, or bomb blasts happening, but people will still go to markets, do shopping, and celebrate as a family everyday life. In an hour-and-a-half, it explains a lot about how Pakistan looks like, what are the things that we need to change, how people struggle when they are different, and when they think different.
It touched my heart when they all stood up, it was so kind, so generous. It’s just gives me more stamina, more hope and it’s like the beginning of my second breath to fight even more for change. All those people are my strength.