‘The Secret Marathon,’ a documentary film made by Red Deer native Kathryn McKenzie, about the first women in run a mixed-gender marathon in Afghanistan, can now be watched for free online at Vimeo.com. (Contributed photo).

‘The Secret Marathon,’ a documentary film made by Red Deer native Kathryn McKenzie, about the first women in run a mixed-gender marathon in Afghanistan, can now be watched for free online at Vimeo.com. (Contributed photo).

Red Deer filmmaker brings documentary about female Afghani marathoners to global audience

Kathryn McKenzie wants everyone to know their strength and resilience

With a new crackdown on women’s rights in Afghanistan, a Red Deer filmmaker feels the urgency of making her documentary about the first females to run a mixed-gender marathon in that country available to a wider audience.

The Secret Marathon can now be watched for free globally through Vimeo.com. It was shot in 2016 by Red Deer native Kathryn McKenzie and her Calgary-based World Views Productions.

At that time, six Afghani women had joined a large contingent of male runners to compete in a mixed-gender marathon in their country.

McKenzie, a runner herself, flew to Afghanistan to join the race — and to document it. Although she received permission to film in the country, she recalled her team of three tried to avoid drawing undue attention by shooting video footage with small hand-held cameras, as well as with a GoPro McKenzie wore while running.

At that time, it seemed life was finally beginning to open up for Afghani women.

The female marathoners had told her that they like to run because it gave them a sense of freedom said McKenzie, who also recalled the “incredible” hospitality and friendliness of Afghani people.

But societal restrictions in that male-dominant society were being felt by women six years ago.

One runner revealed that she had to practice for the 26-mile run by doing countless circles around her small enclosed yard to prevent being seen and judged by her neighbours — and pelted with rocks.

McKenzie said The Secret Marathon documentary then took two long years in post-production after several featured women athletes had, late in the process, asked to be removed from the film, fearing reprisals.

Her team pondered how to proceed without this critical footage. They opted to have these sequences animated and reinserted, preserving the women’s anonymity without stifling their voices.

Instead of life getting easier in Afghanistan in recent years, it has gotten more restrictive. In 2021, Western forces pulled out of the war-torn country and the Taliban took control.

The fundamentalist regime initially pledged to allow girls to attend school. But in January, the Taliban had banned women and girls from secondary and higher education, and altered school curriculum to focus more on religious studies.

McKenzie, a former teacher and Red Deer College alum who got into filmmaking to show her students stories of inspiration, admitted she was filled with “overwhelming” sadness, at how politics in this region have played out.

Most of the women runners she spotlighted are now among Afghanistan’s displaced people, living in the U.S., Europe and Mexico. McKenzie said several of the race organizers have since gone into hiding in their own country.

Because of this, McKenzie believes her project’s message about the undaunted human spirit is perhaps more important to share than ever. That’s why she opted to have the film shown online for free on Vimeo, instead of just at film festivals and other limited screening, where it has won critical praise.

“I would like the big take away to be that the people of Afghanistan are resilient, strong people,” she said. “I want everyone to see that spirit and strength, for that is what gives me hope for the future of Afghanistan.”

McKenzie noted organizers of Afghanistan’s mixed-gender marathon — which had reached about 40 per cent female participation before being cancelled — are hoping to be able to hold it again sometime in future.

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