When I first filmed in Pakistan--specifically in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (the northwest region along the Afghanistan border)--and the dusty landscape revealed homes made of cement compounds, with women dressed in burqas and men with long beards in turbans, the initial sensation I had was fear--for a moment. These images had been seared into my brain for years by Western news and media that told me this is what a terrorist looks like.
Images are powerful. Images combined with stories even more so. But, the people I met, even the strangers who harbored this American who was going undercover to tell Maria's story, were compassionate and giving and just wanted connection and to be seen--as we all do.
I wanted to open up the perspective on the story we have been told about this part of the world; stories create beliefs inside us, making us think that something is true. Maria and her family happen to be from Waziristan, considered the home of the Taliban. Led by their faith, she and her family are out to do only good, to be a beacon of nonviolence and create equal opportunities for women and girls. Maria and her family inspired me beyond measure from the moment I first met them.
I have always been attracted to telling stories about people who are defining for themselves what it means to be a woman or a man and all of the baggage those descriptions carry with them. So much of what makes up our identities is based on how we see those labels in ourselves and what others project onto them.
I grew up with a single mom who faced workplace discrimination, so she went by a male pseudonym in her written correspondence and her deep voice didn't betray her gender over the phone. All over the world, sometimes in nuanced ways and sometimes in life-threatening ways, girls and women are fighting to be seen, to work and even just to survive.
Maria's story points a laser beam at this struggle to an extremely heightened degree and with such clarity that I realized her story could be emblematic of the obstacles girls all over the world are facing.
Every young person on this planet strives to figure out their identity. Every person, deep down inside, wants to thrive in life being and doing what feels right to them.
Like almost all children, Maria wanted to run around playing freely outside. She eventually wanted to participate in sports. Because she was a girl living in a conservative society, it was not appropriate or safe for her to do so. She wanted to play sports and she passed herself off as a boy, which allowed her freedom.
When I first met Maria, I was taken with the story of her childhood. But the question I asked myself when I was deciding whether or not to make a film was "What is the story now?" It immediately started to come together for me the moment I met her family.
Each of her siblings and her mom and dad reminded me of my family in some way. And I felt that if I could connect so deeply with them, others throughout the world would, too--no matter their country, religion or culture.
I had no idea about the journey we would go on. It took us into the furthest reaches of Taliban country and into the depths of our own hearts and asked the most fundamental questions: What lengths would you go to to help your family? What are your values? At what cost do you fight to do good for humankind?
During the filmmaking, there were times when we were in extreme danger. We never knew whether a person was part of the Taliban, an informer, or not. Our tiny crew was extremely brave. Today when people ask me how I could have put myself through this--we often encountered situations that we were not sure we would get out of--I remind them that the filming only lasts so long. But Maria and her family live like this every day of their lives.
This story is unique in that it is showing a young person at a particular time in her life. If made 25 years from now, it might have a very different ending. That is the beauty of capturing life right now, of being present in what is unfolding--none of us know the future. And it takes a lot of courage and honesty to be in the moment with our own feelings and uncertainties. Maria and her family get through this with a deeply embedded value system, a drive to do what's right and a sense of humor.
When we started filming years ago, one producer was concerned about whether this film would be relevant when we completed it. As it turns out, radical extremism, sexual discrimination, abuse and terrorism are still part of the daily news cycle and infiltrating homes and workplaces everywhere in the world.
I hope that the experience of seeing one family bound by love and working to create better lives for others can open hearts and minds beyond narrow stereotypical perceptions of Muslims, gender and what it means to be an athlete. Truly, we are all capable of making our corners of the world a little more compassionate.
-- Erin Heidenreich