The War to Be Her

PBS Premiere: July 23, 2018Check the broadcast schedule »

Film Update

In July 2018, POV asked The War to Be Her filmmaker Erin Heidenreich what's happened since the cameras stopped rolling.

Can you give us an update on Maria and her family?

Maria is currently living in Pakistan with her family and continuing to play squash. She and her family have built a hospital in Bannu (near the Federally Administered Tribal Areas) dedicated to the care of women and children.

Maria's sister, Ayesha Gulalai, received harrowing threats after making allegations of harassment against the PTI party chairman, Imran Khan. This sparked international headlines and has been cited as the beginning of the #MeToo movement in Pakistan. She left the party and launched herself as chief of her own political party, PTI-Gulalai, in February 2018.

Because of this, the family has encountered a slew of hateful speech and death threats this past year. But they are not stopping their work anytime soon and Ayesha is running under her new political party for a seat on July 25, 2018.

It is a tense time as political rallies around Pakistan are stoking fears of violence -- recently, one political rally held by another candidate was bombed killing him and 148 others.

Honestly, I am constantly praying for their safety.

How did you get to meet Maria?

Soon after Maria came to Toronto to seek refuge with squash coach, Jonathon Power, the film's producer, Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal, met Jonathon at a business dinner where he shared Maria's story. She was extremely inspired by this young woman's journey and flew to Toronto to meet her. On the spot she decided to support Maria in her quest to help the people from the Tribal Areas of Pakistan and share her story for others to ideally find their strength in whatever adversity they faced. She then went to Pakistan where she connected with Maria's family and embarked on research to make a documentary that Maria's family wholeheartedly supported. It took a few years before Cassandra met the director, Erin Heidenreich, but from the moment they connected she recognized Erin was the one to help share Maria's story. Erin had the vision, strength and heart that Cassandra knew was the perfect fit.

How did the community react to filming? Did you have to be discreet at times?

We had to be very careful about openly filming at certain points. It was a tricky atmosphere to estimate how people would respond when we pulled out the cameras. In some cases, when the people knew Maria's family, there was a deep level of trust with them and that trust extended to the filmmaking crew. In other situations, we had to rely upon the family's experience and our instincts as you didn't know know if the person was safe to film or an informer to the Taliban.

There was one particular night at their friend's compound where we stayed in the Tribal Areas, in which we initially thought we were safe. But word traveled and someone got suspicious, and all of a sudden four men with kalashnikovs came in and questioned the family about me. After a very harrowing night, we eventually left safe and sound.

There were also cultural sensitivities we needed to take in to account. When filming women in their homes, it was really only appropriate to have other women there, so only myself and the female cinematographers could capture those moments. Out in the open, it was much safer for the male cinematographer to be out with his camera. But, with the brave team we had, all of us women did film openly out on the streets at times.

Maria says, "If you think big, then you do bigger." How do you think this quote shapes the film?

Everything that society told Maria about who she should be and what she should do is small in some way. She "should" stay at home, she "should" not go after her dreams, she "should" keep covered and be quiet. But Maria's thoughts and ambitions, supported and guided by her father, led her down a very different path. You first have to have the thought that you can do something and then it is much more likely to happen. Our thoughts become what we think of ourselves and that, in turn, leads to action. Maria and her family spend a lot of time critically thinking about society, how to do better in the world and how to help people. And, from the film, you can see how this deep sense of thoughtfulness turns into actions. Maria and her family face so many obstacles, and the way that they have been able to overcome them is by having the mindfulness of their thoughts, asking "what is the right thing to do?" and then from there, their deep sense of conviction allows them to aim for the stars.

What was the atmosphere like at the final match in Islamabad?

Maria was seeded 8th going into the tournament, nobody expected her to go very far. Each time she won a match, we were on the edge of our seats. When it got to the final match, the audience was on their feet the whole time. The cinematographers had to fight to try to get a clear view of the court as the excited audience members kept clamoring to get the best view as well.

There was so much pressure as the national press came out in droves because Maria made it to the final match. Maria knew full well what that spotlight meant: both an opportunity to show young Pakistani girls what they could accomplish, and also putting her front and center in the media where her adversaries would get agitated.

Everyone was anxious; Maria's mom kept looking away because she couldn't bear the tension. When it came down to the final point, and Maria won, girls ran up to Maria on the court and there were tears in their eyes. It gets me emotional just thinking about it now.

What are you working on now?

I have completed a short documentary film set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo about ending sexual violence against women through the transformation of men called "Rising Sons." It dives into the identity issues many men face around the concept of "masculinity," which I feel is applicable to the rest of the world.

For me, it is important to tell stories that inspire people to look deep within themselves at their own stories and concepts of identity.