Amid the high-energy parties and celeb-spotting abound at the Toronto International Film Festival, it’s easy to separate the festival energy from the somber tales told on screen. And while TIFF is built up around high-profile actors and the fictional stories they star in, it also provides a platform for some of the most promising documentary film makers in the world.
One such director is Erin Heidenreich, who is making her feature directorial debut at this year’s festival with Girl Unbound: the War to be Her. Following the story of Pakistani professional squash player, Maria Toorpakai Wazir, the film provides an intimate look into the social sexism and its associated violence put upon women who defy gender norms in Pakistan.
Growing up in the region of Waziristan, where women are forbidden from playing sports by the Taliban, Toorpakai dressed as a boy for sixteen years in order to compete in sports without repercussions. When her true gender was eventually revealed, the professional athlete and her family started receiving death threats from the Taliban.
She and her family proceeded to move to Toronto to continue to train safely. Girl Unbound follows her back to Pakistan to continue competing at a professional level. Exploring concepts of gender and identity, the film introduces audiences to Toorpakai’s family, who have supported her in her nontraditional roles and encouraged her to participate in sports from a young age. Through getting to know her immediate and extended family, viewers are invited to explore contesting social ideals within Pakistan.
“I think this is an extremely important time to show a Muslim family who have put their lives on the line to do what is fundamentally good: treat all human beings with respect” explained Heidenreich in an interview. While many audiences outside the subcontinent are likely familiar with the negative image of Islam associated with the Taliban, Girl Unbound provides battling view of the Pakistani population that has unfortunately been underrepresented within western media.
For more of Toorpakai’s story, find tickets to Girl Unbound at TIFF here or find her memoir, a Different Kind of Daughter: the Girl Who Hid from the Taliban in Plain Sight here.
By Lindsay Cooper