Women Behind The Wheel: A travelogue about mobility and a lesson in humility
Mobility is a luxury afforded by the few.
Womanhood, with all its struggles and satisfactions, is something that almost 50 percent of us experience; however, too many are repressed by the imposed constraints it assigns to us at birth: Stagnate, either by force, circumstance or necessity.
Women Behind The Wheel uses the privilege of travel and mobility to capture the stories of women across Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that may otherwise go unheard.
It is a humble, homespun sort of movie starring two friends, who travel mile-by-mile, story-by-story, lesson-by-lesson.
Yes, it is the product of a GroPro, means and ambition. Yes, it approaches issues such as wearing a hijab or unorthodox fertility treatments from a western perspective; but it does this honestly, humbly and unjudgementally.
"Women Behind The Wheel uses the privilege of travel and mobility to capture the stories of women across Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan that may otherwise go unheard"
Directors Hannah Congdon and Catherine Haigh’s feature-length film, ultimately, offers audiences an enjoyable, compassionate travelogue that unlike so many of its contemporaries takes the time to learn, ask questions, document and reflect.
"In an age of Skyscanner and Ryanair, Haigh and Congdon have accomplished a vanishing feat: a true adventure" ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ @indie_pendent— Women Behind the Wheel (@wbtw2018) February 25, 2023
Screenings kick off 5 March @UPPCinema Oxford!
Tune in to @BBCOxford Monday 6:35pm to hear Cat and Han chat to @fleurostojak about the film 📻 pic.twitter.com/jSRHgqzQ93
"We were both interested in travelling this region," says Cat when she spoke with The New Arab.
"At first glance, you’re like, are they safe? No one talks about them.
"The more you dig into it, these are fascinating countries with amazing landscapes," she added.
The chosen route, the Pamir Highway, stretches more than 1,200km between Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. It served as one of the main arteries of the original Silk Road and was later modified by the Soviets as they sought to increase their influence in the region.
The BBC describes the road as winding through "savage wilderness, ranging from high desert to snowy mountains". Only "thrill-seekers who love big, wild and remote landscapes" venture to this corner of the world, they say.
Clearly, this region – in Western minds – has been subjected to years of systematic othering, orientalist distortions and imposed mysticism.
It is these prevailing conceptions, devoid of the reality of life in the region, that arguably first caught Cat and Hannah's attention.
Yet, over the course of their journey, what you see is the dismantling of these fantasised notions, replaced with an understanding of the universalities of female experiences as well as the specific challenges faced by women in the region.
"We definitely set out with an idea that we were going to go out and talk to the coolest women we could find, who were the most strikingly defying stereotypes," says Hannah.
"But I think the story it evolved into was that it is just as powerful talking to women who are working in communities that are a bit more conservative and what they are doing might seem more incremental, but collectively what they are achieving alongside other women is quite extraordinary."
"Over the course of their journey, what you see is the dismantling of these fantasised notions, replaced with an understanding of the universalities of female experiences as well as the specific challenges faced by women in the region"
In the opening parts of the film, for instance, Cat and Hannah head to Osh, Kyrgyzstan where they visit a conservative Islamic school and a youth-based feminist organisation Novi Ritm.
In one scene, a woman at the school talks about young girls learning “to choose a husband [and] how to treat a husband”. In the next scene, a woman from Novi Ritm discusses the importance of “sex” as a women’s “individual need”.
"The stories we were most affected by and that we think are most affecting in the film aren’t necessarily the kind of stories that shout the loudest," says Hannah.
One story that deeply impacted me, chimed Cat, was that of the bubbly schoolteacher from a remote village.
Sayram, the only English-speaking woman in the village and family breadwinner, was pondering leaving her home because of the lack of infrastructure and economic opportunities.
Central Asia has one of the largest migrant corridors in the world, with an estimated 10 million foreigners heading to Russia for work.
"I don’t know what to do with the future. Maybe go to Russia to work there and earn money," Sayram says while surrounded by her beautiful garden, children and village.
"All the women we spoke to who were really educated and empowered travelled or wanted to travel," says Hannah.
"It was such an overriding theme," adds Cat.
"She’s just doing a lot at such a young age,' says Hannah upon meeting a young woman caring for her younger disabled brother. 'I can’t imagine having that pressure"
Now, some may find this asymmetry in privilege or the lack of agency between one woman and the next an exercise in the obvious… or even the jarring.
What the movie doesn’t do is offer detailed and specific judgements about the region. It doesn't examine this gulf between female experiences; nor does it dig deep into specific issues, such as domestic violence – which comes up through conversation but is not analysed or deconstructed.
A hotel worker describes the kidnapping of her sister and articulates fears that she will one day meet the same fate. Cat and Hannah stumble across gender-based violence in a public market and rush away deciding not to film the incident.
Women Behind The Wheel paints no grand conclusions about why this happens or what should happen next.
For this, you must go elsewhere – and understandably so, the film is a travelogue made by two young British women.
However, Women Behind The Wheel should not be dismissed at best for its humility and at worst for its positionality.
For the travel-hungry and curious like myself, the movie showcases a growing awareness among young adventurers and makes clear how small confrontations with different people tell a wider story.
Travellers and (some) audience members are exposed to a variety of beliefs and positions within womanhood and take away a new understanding of the world around them.
Maybe, however, maybe you’ve seen it all before, then the film is simply a reminder of our commonality and what it means to be young and curious; to treat people with kindness and treasure the kindness they showed us in return.
Women Behind the Wheel was released on March 3 in cinemas