Members of an all-girl robotics team from Afghanistan, the majority of whom narrowly fled the country following the Taliban’s brutal takeover of power, are the subjects of a new feature documentary depicting the group’s rise to become national heroes, Variety can reveal.
Directed by David Greenwald and produced by Beth Murphy, “Afghan Dreamers” — named after the original team of six girls — is in post-production, though currently on hold as the pair frantically works to ensure the young women and their families are safe and secure after escaping the Taliban.
Variety can confirm that most of the girls are now in Mexico, while one remains in Doha, Qatar.
“On the way from Herat to Kabul, we were very scared,” reads a tense message from one member of the team, shared with Variety, as she sought to escape. “Every hour, the Taliban would enter the car and check the inside of the car. I myself was in a tent [burqa] in the car so that they would not recognize me. My father is worried about us, because our lives are in danger.”
Throughout this ordeal, the “Afghan Dreamers” creative team — which includes producer David Cowan and Oscar-winning doc maker Ellen Goosenberg Kent as consulting producer — has transcended their roles as mere witnesses documenting an incredible journey. Murphy, a 20-year non-fiction veteran who was first in Afghanistan when the Taliban was toppled in 2001, says she didn’t move from one spot for four days straight as she worked alongside U.S. Special Forces to file a “crushing amount” of paperwork to evacuate 54 different family members of the team. These individuals are now safely in a Doha camp, where they will eventually travel to the U.S. via Mexico.
“It is life and death at every second and the highs and lows have been unbelievable,” Murphy tells Variety, noting that her efforts are now laser-focused on three remaining families. Getting people to Kabul airport, she says, is the most challenging leg of the mission.
“Sometimes we think, ‘Success, success! They’re going to open the gate [to the airport]!’ And then we hear that the Taliban have said they’re going to search their bus. It’s been an absolute, total white-knuckle panic.”
The robotics team is a first for Afghanistan, where under Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001, women were practically under house arrest and banned from working or getting an education. Based in Herat, the nation’s third largest city, the group is comprised of around 25 girls between the ages of 12 and 18. The original team members, some of whom have now graduated, are called the ‘Afghan Dreamers,’ and they’re the focus of the film.
“It’s important to realize that they grew up in a world where girls weren’t allowed to ride a bicycle. They weren’t allowed to smile in public,” Greenwald says. “But they’ve travelled and have gotten to see a different world, and have made so much progress in realizing what freedom really means. So, the whole idea of the Taliban coming in and just turning the clock back on these young people is so difficult for all of us.”
The team was founded by Afghan technology entrepreneur Roya Mahboob, who was asked in 2016 by FIRST Global, the organizers of an Olympics-style robotics competition, to form a team from Afghanistan. The ensuing squad had a rocky journey securing visas to compete in international competitions — particularly for the U.S. — but have since amassed supporters and inspired science communities around the world with their skills and perseverance.
Greenwald, whose credits include “The Last Race,” from “Truffle Hunters” director Michael Dweck, and “The Blech Effect,” was first alerted to the team at a Q&A for one of his films, where a breathless audience member recounted his experience hiding the team at his California residence after security concerns emerged during a U.S. trip.
“I didn’t really know much about robotics, and my experience didn’t include things of an international scope,” says Greenwald, who quickly recruited Murphy (“What Tomorrow Brings”), whose work has primarily focused on women’s rights and girls’ education, to join the project.
The pair shot over the fall and winter months of 2019, when peace talks between the Taliban and U.S. were underway. “The girls and their families were watching the news and really paying attention to what was going on,” says Greenwald. “I would say that’s where concerns started to build.”
The team was increasingly anxious about the commute to their workshop just outside Herat, in a rural area. “They felt they had to try and hide themselves. They were worried what could happen on the road; there was always that unknown,” says Murphy.
“There’s this incredible sense when you’re on the ground in Afghanistan that everything is going well, until it’s really not going well. You always have the sense that anything could go wrong at any moment. And that’s the kind of pressure [the girls] were living with on a daily basis.”
Greenwald and Murphy say that, of their footage, the most uplifting moments — “Where you want to jump off your couch and cheer them on,” opines Murphy — come from the team’s international triumphs at various competitions.
“Most of life in Afghanistan happens behind walls,” notes Murphy, “so we were very careful not to attract unnecessary attention to them when we were filming, especially around their homes. You never feel safe there, and you can’t let down your guard or be lulled into some false sense of security.”
A deal between the U.S. and Taliban was struck in February 2020, dictating that the U.S. and its NATO allies would withdraw all troops in 14 months provided the organization upheld a promise to stop attacks.
“When I thought about how the film was going to end, very often it was the signing of the peace treaty, and the girls would set up schools to teach other girls what they’ve learned, and it would be the beginning of a new era for Afghanistan,” says Greenwald. “The way things have unfolded, it certainly hasn’t happened that way.”
One can only speculate what might now be in store for a high-profile group of young women, on track to becoming scientists and engineers, in Afghanistan.
“It really did seem impossible in the beginning to think there would be an all-girl robotics team,” reflects Greenwald. “But through all this, they’ve been able to succeed and champion the cases of girls and women. They were poised to become the next generation of engineers and computer scientists and problem solvers in the country. And they’re still poised to do that.
“But unfortunately, at least for now, it won’t be in Afghanistan.”