Two female directors break remarkable ground in their new documentary, driving the length of the mountainous Pamir highway to meet the women who call it home.
Imagine your worst flat tire of all time. Now imagine it happened on the side of a sheer cliff face, in the middle of the rocky central Asian mountains, in Tajikistan, halfway along the gruelling Pamir highway. Welcome to a day in the life of Hannah Congdon and Catherine Haigh, two female documentarians travelling solo along the often dangerous road to meet the inspiring women who live along the way.
Women Behind the Wheel premiering at the Edinburgh International Film Festival is an emotional homecoming indeed, because three years ago Congdon and Haigh won the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s 2019 Works in Progress Award. They pitched a remarkable concept: they would drive for 65 days along the second-highest highway in the world, through the predominantly Muslim republics of Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, to see how the women there lived their lives. This film is the result of their efforts.
The highway is remote and lonely, the colossal empty landscapes stretch on dizzyingly, the winters are harsh and long, and the summers are brutally hot. And yet, along these challenging desert plains and rocky arid mountains, Haigh and Congdon are met at every turn with kindness, hospitality, and women of tremendous spirit. They are bee-keepers, lion-tamers, activists, teachers, doctors, students, and mountain trekkers. There is even a Taekwondo world champion.
Among their interviewees are many women holding down the fort. In a devastatingly tough climate, where farming is only possible for two or three months of the year; many men become labour migrants and move to Russia for work, sending money home to their families and staying away for years at a time, leaving their wives and daughters behind to lead their homes and communities.
Between these vibrant and candid personal histories is an important history lesson—life has not been easy along the old Silk Road trade route since Soviet rule collapsed in these countries, and the subsequent civil wars and internal conflicts that followed. Without Soviet support, remote towns were left without electricity, and their institutions such as airports fell into disrepair. After the war, more radical interpretations of Islam emerged, and the education of young girls is shown to revolve heavily around the care and support of men and their future in-laws. Domestic abuse is prevalent, and the frightening practice of bride ‘kidnapping’ is alive and kicking. Haigh and Congdon confront these issues unblinkingly, without judgement, and always without condescension.
This film was originally intended as a short, and sometimes this shows in the pacing, with perhaps slightly more filler of the trials and tribulations on the road than is strictly necessary. And yet, the stories represented on screen are only a fraction of the wonderful people Haigh and Congdon encountered. The spectacular landscapes make for a wonderful cinematic treat, and the tone of the documentary remains light-hearted despite the unmistakable hardship of many of these women’s lives.
In an age of Skyscanner and Ryanair, Haigh and Congdon have accomplished a vanishing feat: a true adventure. Not only is Women Behind the Wheel insightful and educational, the women they meet on their way are inspiring in their resilience, their warmth, and their courage.
Words by Eli Dolliver
This film was screened as part of the Edinburgh International Film Festival. You can find the rest of our coverage here.
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