Robotics competitions, which offer opportunities for students from Pre-K through college to show off their technical skills and creativity, are becoming increasingly popular. And why not? Nerds like to compete as much as jocks do, and they get the same benefits: learning new skills, working as a team, meeting students from other schools (or states or countries), and experiencing victory and defeat in safe situations. Not to mention that the kind of skills required to succeed in a robotics competition have a lot more real-life applications than being able to sink a jump shot or split the goal posts with a place kick.
Sometimes there’s even more at stake, as is the case with the Afghan Dreamers, a five-girl robotics team from Herat (Afghanistan’s third-largest city). Given the recent history of their country, it’s a wonder they exist at all, yet they not only exist but have achieved notable success in international competitions. That success made them national and international heroes, but also drew death threats from people who think that girls shouldn’t learn technology, travel, take part in public life, or basically exist outside their homes.* That particular combination of factors makes this female robotics team the intriguing subjects of David Greenwald’s documentary Afghan Dreamers, which chronicles them from 2017 to 2021.
The Dreamers began when five high school students in Herat—Fatemah, Lida, Somaya, Kawsar, and Saghar—were selected from 150 applicants through a competitive exam (other requirements to join the team—parental permission and a passport). The team was created and funded by Roya Mahboob, an Afghan technology entrepreneur, who appears regularly in Afghan Dreamers to give the team pep talks and tough love.
They encounter a serious roadblock early on: scheduled to compete in an international competition in Washington, DC, they are twice refused visas to enter the country. The reasons behind visa decisions are confidential, so perhaps the Afghan Dreamers were victims of the Trump administration’s “extreme vetting” policy, or perhaps they weren’t. In any case a letter of support signed by 32 members of Congress, perhaps aided by the publicity their case was drawing internationally, led to the decision being reversed.
Visas in hand, the Dreamers competed in the 2017 Global Challenge competition and were awarded a silver medal for “Courageous Achievement.” They were greeted back home like heroes, a remarkable shift in public opinion (before they left, there was a lot of sniping about how only boys had STEM talent, how girls looked silly working with tools, and the like). They even got a private audience with Ashraf Ghani, then president of Afghanistan, who told them “You are an inspiration to us all. I hope that students in every school in Afghanistan will learn to believe in themselves and their abilities.”
The Dreamers continued to travel to international competitions, winning one outright in Estonia. At the same time, they understood that there was more at stake than winning or losing this or that competition—by their very existence, they serve as role models for women’s education. Certainly no one can accuse them of thinking small. Asked about her goals, Fatemah replies unironically “I want to help people using science and technology and become an engineer. And I also want to go to Mars.” Team members also want to create “The Afghan Dreamers Institute”—a STEM school for gifted students to foster the development of Afghan scientists on the order of “Stephen Hawking, Albert Einstein, [and] Isaac Newton.”
The Dreamers don’t have to imagine what it was like for women a generation older. One of their mothers (who is not only a psychologist, but also the first in Herat to learn to drive) tells them about growing up under Taliban rule: “They forced us to wear a burka. We couldn’t leave the house without a male guardian. My family told me that I couldn’t go out alone because the Taliban would beat me for being outside the house without a man. Everything was forbidden for women” and urges them to “go to school and become someone.”
It’s no spoiler to note that it didn’t take long for the bad old days to return. Even before the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 2021, there were periodic outbreaks of violence, including a suicide bombing in a mosque that killed one girl’s father. Things got much worse after the Taliban takeover—team members were targeted for death and fled the country. From their undisclosed locations, however, they continue to dream, and offer this message for the girls and women still in Afghanistan: “We know things are difficult. Don’t lose hope. We’ll raise our voices on your behalf and fight for your freedom.”
Afghan Dreamers drags in places and despite running only 72 minutes can feel padded with generic filler. Some slack must be granted, however, for the fact that it was made under incredibly difficult conditions (a screen card notes that some members of Afghan filmmaking team can’t be credited out of fear for their safety). Minor quibbles aside, Afghan Dreamers tells an inspirational story, has a real “you are there” feel, and has been successful on the international festival circuit, winning awards for “Best Human Rights Film” at the 2022 Galway Film Fleadh and the Audience Award at the 2022 Valladolid International Film Festival. | Sarah Boslaugh
*The Taliban’s stated reason for calling for their death is that they traveled without a male escort. Of course, since the Taliban also banned education for women beyond the sixth grade, I have a feeling that wasn’t their only objection.
Afghan Dreamers will debut on Paramount+ on May 23.