Sarah Menzies laughs when she recalls the surreal experience of winning Best Short Film at the San Diego Surf Film Festival for Catch It, a documentary about French surfer Léa Brassy. “They said my name and I was clapping, looking around, like, ‘Who made Catch It?’” says Menzies. Upon the realization that it was her own film, she accepted the award with shaky hands – then handed it right back to the festival director, for fear of dropping it in shock. “I’ve got plenty of confidence, but I got into this work to tell other people’s stories,” she says. “It was just a funny moment where it was like, ‘Wait, why am I getting the award when this is really about Léa?’”
The Seattle-based filmmaker has steadily built a career – and name – on her impressive ability to draw depth, vulnerability, and strength from her characters in service of their compelling stories. While Menzies jokes that she chose filmmaking as her storytelling avenue over writing because her “reading comprehension has never been that great,” her path did begin in a somewhat different medium – broadcasting. She visited a radio station during high school in tiny Ferndale, Washington, then pursued studies that taught her how to shoot, edit, and craft a narrative. “I always wanted to see the world and get out of that town,” she says. “I kind of thought, if I can get out and see the world, I can share that with people who might not have the interest, but might still benefit from hearing those stories.”
Menzies switched to film and figured the path forward as a storyteller would involve linking up with a production company; instead, she ended up founding her own, Let Media, in 2012. Catch It was her first film, and the experience in San Diego made her realize that pursuing a career in filmmaking was possible. “It wasn’t even seeing my name, it was seeing my company’s name on the big screen that first time that really just gave me the chills,” says Menzies. “That’s the thing I’ve built; it’s there on the big screen, and people are clapping.”
Over time, Menzies began expanding her portfolio with work for travel and outdoor brands, from Platypus to Patagonia. Two of her most recent projects – A Steelhead Quest, a documentary about angler Terry Myers, and The Mirnavator, a study of ultrarunner Mirna Valerio – were done with support from REI. Like most creatives, Menzies navigates a tricky balance of commercial and more personal projects.
However, the scales have increasingly tipped toward the latter. Her new full-length documentary, Afghan Cycles, premiered at the Hot Docs Canadian International Film Festival in April. The film spans five years in the life of two groups of female cyclists in Afghanistan – the National Cycling Team in Kabul and the Bamiyan Cycling Team, based in the country’s mountainous central region. The project, conceived when Menzies found out about the national team from a friend in Afghanistan, took more than a few twists along the half-decade of filming as Menzies dove into cultural and gender issues. “After meeting the girls and just understanding why it’s so controversial and taboo [for them to ride bikes], I felt like I needed to dig in deeper to contextualize that,” she says. “It wasn’t as simple as ‘Check it out – a cycling film out of Afghanistan!’
The film’s messages are powerful. “I think the Kabul team represents what the bike can do for your confidence. The role that sport can have in a woman’s life in an oppressive country is huge, giving them a sense of purpose, being on a team, giving them confidence, and getting them active,” says Menzies. “And then the Bamiyan team is more [about] what can the bike do for women specifically in oppressive countries, where it’s giving them freedom, independence, and mobility, so they’re no longer reliant on a man, [and] they can get around on their own.”
We spoke with Menzies about Afghan Cycles, the importance of narrative and intention in her work, and the greater climate shift around diverse storytelling.
What kinds of stories or subjects do you find most compelling?
Honestly, I have to look at this in hindsight, because it’s taken me a while to realize the connection between the people I profile, but I think it is feeling this strong pull towards people who are dedicating their lives to something that they’re passionate about. I feel like that’s something I’ve been pulled towards because I don’t have that one thing that I would do. To find someone that knows that “this is what I love and this is what I live for” is what I find really compelling. The thing I really hone in on is how is that passion making this world better?
What do you feel is the most important element of the storytelling process?
My goal is to actually create meaningful relationships with the people that I’m asking to profile, or whose stories I’ve drawn to and want to put into a film. The idea of someone following me around with a camera in my life is terrifying, so I try to start there and assume that everyone feels that way, even though I know that’s not true. Plenty of people love it or do fine with it, but I try to start by assuming that they hate this and it’s a huge burden. I try to get time with new people before we even turn the camera on, whether that’s just talking on the phone or it’s actually spending a couple days together. I want to connect with people on that human level.
No doubt, the conversation about your work often includes a discussion of the significance of gender in filmmaking, particularly outdoor filmmaking. Is this something you feel is relevant to your work?
I am finding that I’m getting put into this category of only telling stories about women. People are into that [and] see the importance of it, but it was a total coincidence – it’s the stories I’ve been drawn to. Maybe it’s because subconsciously, I’m not seeing that on the big screen so much. But I don’t like being referred to as a “female filmmaker.”
I feel like Afghan Cycles is the first actual film [of mine] where gender plays a role because these women are up against so much; it’s because they’re women that riding a bike is taboo. But I don’t think that any other film I’ve done – and maybe I’m convincing myself of something else here – incorporated [gender] into what their stories were. I really tried hard to leave that out and just look at this cool human doing something really rad that I’ll probably never do; it just so happens that they’re female.
It is an industry that can be hard to get into as a woman, I suppose, so I’m okay using my voice to show other women that they should go for it, but it’s definitely not my platform or my soapbox. I’m thinking of my characters, but if they’re showing women that they can get out on a trail run, go fly fishing, go surfing, or whatever it is, that’s awesome, too.
It’s an interesting time right now to be a storyteller – there’s a shift in how stories are being told, what stories are being told, and who is telling them.
That’s where I do have a little bit of a mental tug of war. I think it’s a really great time right now because things are changing. To be able to share stories from women across the board is obviously very important. But where the tug of war comes in is [that] there’s always this little seed of doubt deep in my brain that’s like, “You’re only having success right now because people are checking this off on the list.” I try not to let that voice get too loud, but it is a worry I have, especially when we’re in this heightened time of demanding progress, demanding equality, and all of these wonderful things. It does make you question: What’s the legitimacy of my success right now? Is it just because I’m a woman and people are trying to check that off the list, or am I actually on par with the male colleagues I have in this industry?
Let’s just celebrate awesome stories. I don’t know, I guess that’s where I’m a feminist in the most traditional sense; I want to get to a place where we’re not even talking about gender because it is equal. I get that we’re not there yet, and that’s why I’m okay with lending my voice to this stuff, but it does come with little seeds of doubt.
Do you feel that Afghan Cycles has a special significance at this point in time, historically, culturally, politically?
I feel like this has always been an important story since we started, but at this point, in the climate we’re living in, it feels more important than ever. I think this issue of women trying to do something that feels so normal to us, but learning that they can’t because of their gender, I mean – that’s something I think is really important right now.
In the context of Islamophobia and what’s been going on in the world, [it’s significant] to be able to share my experience in Afghanistan and show how welcoming the families were to me. Afghanistan truly was one of the most welcoming places I’ve been. Obviously there’s danger, and I’m not naïve to that, but the actual people that we were working with were amazing.
We touch on refugee [issues] as some of our characters flee the country – it isn’t just about cycling anymore, it’s about: How do I get asylum? How do I make it in a western country when I don’t speak the language, don’t look the same? When you’ve got Muslim immigrants coming in, trying to set up a better future for themselves or for their kids, they’re the victims. They’re leaving a dangerous situation and they’ve put it all into this one action of fleeing and risking everything. They’ve made all kinds of sacrifices, and that’s a testament to what they were actually up against. I just hope that this story can personalize that issue and maybe shift people’s perspectives.
Is there any specific advice you’d offer to aspiring documentary filmmakers?
The best advice I can give is just get out there and do it. I know that isn’t very helpful, but it’s true. You need to keep creating content, even if it’s just for you. It’s important to develop your style so when you’re ready to pitch clients or potential sponsors, they know what you’re capable of.
Sarah on Instagram: @sarmenzies
Sarah on Facebook: facebook.com/LetMediaLLC
Interview was edited for clarity and length.