Girl graduates celebrating

The first girls to graduate from high school in Deh’Subz, an Afghan district outside Kabul. Photo by Beth Murphy, Principle Pictures

In an early scene of What Tomorrow Brings, Pashtana, a seventh-grader at a girls’ school in rural Afghanistan, describes just how much her education means to her. “My biggest hope is to finish school,” she says, smiling brightly. “That’s how my life will turn the corner, and I’ll be on my way.”

Her smile fades. “But I’m worried there are people around me who will try to stop me.”

The scene sets the tone for the rest of director Beth Murphy’s moving hour-long documentary, which will have its national broadcast premiere on the PBS documentary series POV tonight at 10 p.m. (Check local listings.) The film tells the story of two students at the Zabuli Education Center in the Deh’Subz district, thirty miles outside Kabul. By turns hopeful and bleak, the movie­—told through the eyes of Pashtana and her classmate Rihala—depicts the successes and struggles of a growing movement to educate girls in a country only fifteen years removed from the Taliban’s rule.

The subject is one that has already received a fair amount of attention in the media, and the film comes out just a year after He Named Me Malala, a documentary about a Pakistani teenager, Malala Yousafzai, who was targeted by the Taliban for championing girls’ education. (Yousafzai later became the youngest person ever to receive the Nobel peace prize.) But What Tomorrow Brings stands out in the ways it personalizes the issue through its deeply intimate and compelling portraits of the students, their teacher-mentor Nazima, and the school’s founder, Razia Jan.

Like many girls’ schools in Afghanistan, Zabuli faced an uphill battle from the start. The village elders initially opposed Razia’s plan to educate girls, asking that the new school teach boys instead. Boys have long been educated at higher rates than girls in Afghanistan, where the literacy rate among men last year was 51 percent, more than twice that of women, according to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics.

Ultimately, Razia won over the elders, and many of them became big fans of the school. During one meeting, an elder says, “If the school falls apart, this whole village falls apart.” In another scene, an elder brimming with pride speaks about how the school has changed their lives: “In the past when we got a letter from the government, we had to go door to door to find someone who could read it.… Today, our young daughters can read in English. This is a proud moment.” The film makes it clear that Zabuli is part of a turning tide in Afghanistan. Only half a million Afghan girls were in school in 2010; in 2015, there were three million.

The girls themselves seem aware of the gift they’ve been given. (For them, it is literally a gift: at Zabuli, unlike most schools in Afghanistan, the tuition is free.) Rihala, the mayor’s daughter, transferred to Zabuli seeking higher-quality instruction—her last school left her so far behind that she is twenty-three when she starts eleventh grade. Pashtana gushes again and again about how happy she is at school, and she isn’t alone: the film often captures giggling girls jumping rope and chasing each other around the schoolyard. We are treated to a few heartwarming scenes of Nazima serving as a surrogate big sister, offering the students an empathetic ear, advice, and comfort.

And yet the threat of violence looms over these scenes. In 2015, attacks and intimidation closed 213 schools in Afghanistan, affecting over 50,000 girls. Terrorists have tried to stop the education of girls by throwing acid at students, lighting schools on fire, and poisoning their water supplies. Although Zabuli has the blessing and protection of its village’s elders, no one at the school seems to believe its safety can be guaranteed. In one of the film’s most hair-raising scenes, Zabuli’s principal, Hawa, tests the school’s water on herself before the students arrive. “I have to be careful because we are well-known,” she says. “If the water is poisoned, I am just one person. But if 400 students are poisoned, that’s a big problem.”

At home, many girls face pressure from their families to leave school after they become engaged—typically to older men, in matches arranged by their parents without their consent. (In Afghanistan, an estimated 40 percent of girls are married by the time they are eighteen, according to UNICEF.) Several engaged girls in the film are beaten by male relatives for refusing to drop out.

What is most striking about What Tomorrow Brings is the tenacity and dedication of the educators and students—as well as the filmmakers—in the face of such brutality. Teachers ride two hours each way from Kabul to reach the school; students risk beatings and death to sit in a classroom and learn English. Murphy and her crew spent six years building relationships with the Deh’Subz villagers to gain their trust, shooting 450 hours of footage. This dedication allowed them to capture intimate scenes: a father lying about forbidding his daughter from attending school, Nazima and a student criticizing her father’s new wife.  As the film unfolds, we become invested in the girls’ success, even as we realize that not every girl at Zabuli will achieve her dreams.

The deep-dive stories, while well-told, would have benefited from a stronger grounding in historical and social context. The film finds places to provide national education statistics and recollections of life under the Taliban, but it spends little time on either the past that led to this moment—the traditions that have devalued girls’ education, for instance—or the national future that’s at stake, given that educated women are more likely to raise healthy, prosperous families.

Yet the film ultimately succeeds by allowing the personal journeys to drive home the broader story about the struggles that occur when a culture begins to shift. The narrative is emotionally compelling and well-crafted, and the high attention to detail rewards the careful viewer: in one scene, a girl who previously boasted that she would never wear a burka is shown donning one with a sad smile. At the same time, the documentary steers clear of the kind of saccharine moments that plague the prose of philanthropic reports. What Tomorrow Brings may inspire viewers with its tales of tenacity and triumph, but it gives them no illusions about just how hard-won success can be for these brave women and girls.

Chelsea Rudman is an international development professional and freelance writer who lives in Washington, DC. Her writing has previously been published in the NY Press and Matador Travel.

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