When filmmaker Mat Whitecross was preparing to fly out to Japan to shoot an independently financed docuseries on the Paralympics, his main focus was on the games themselves. But a funny thing happened on the way to Tokyo.
Wanting to include competitors from developing countries in the series, Whitecross’s pre-games coverage included a young woman named Nilofar Bayat—captain of her wheelchair basketball team and a strong advocate for women and the disabled in Afghanistan, she is also an outspoken critic of the Taliban.
When she was just two-years-old, Bayat’s family home was caught in the crossfire between the Taliban and the Mujahideen. A Taliban rocket hit her house, killing her brother and badly injuring her spinal cord. Life in Afghanistan for a woman is difficult enough, but for a disabled woman the trials are “double” as Bayat told me, and then added “in Afghanistan, a woman who is disabled is seen as incomplete and not useful to society.”
Unlike many Afghans with disabilities, Bayat benefited from strong family support—she was able to access a university education and start a women’s wheelchair basketball team. She also found work at the Red Cross in data entry and reception until the recent fall of Kabul made returning to the office impossible.
Her activism on behalf of women and the disabled brought her a certain level of renown in her country, but that notoriety came with great risk to her and her family. Due to a number of speeches she gave against the Taliban, and with so many of them being recorded, she would become a target.
As the United States military began a hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan under the leadership of President Biden after 20 years of occupation (an agreement that was negotiated by the Trump administration and the Taliban without the presence of the Afghan government) it quickly became clear that those who had spoken out against the Taliban were in grave danger.
Hoping he could help, Whitecross reached out to Bayat to see if there was anything he and his team could do. Suddenly Mat’s project—intended to be an uplifting look at the trials and accomplishments of Paralympians—bumped up against a life and death proposition.
Mat Whitecross has a refugee family history himself. Just before Mat was born, his British father and Argentinian mother fled from Argentina to London (after spending six months as political prisoners) to escape the rule of the military junta during the Dirty War that lasted from 1974-83.
In London, Whitecross was able to make a life and pursue filmmaking as a career. His first credit as a director, perhaps ironically, was The Road To Guantanamo, a 2006 film based on the true story of three British nationals (known as the Tipton Three) taken from Afghanistan and incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay prison—the legal no-man’s land set up by the United States to deal with suspected terrorists after 9/11. Whitecross co-directed the film with the great British filmmaker Michael Winterbottom. Mixing documentary footage with dramatizations (one of the Tipton Three is played by a young Riz Ahmed), the film takes an unflinching and excoriating look at the detentions of those imprisoned at Guantanamo.
From there, Whitecross bounced between film and television, making both documentary and scripted features. His work has swung from political documentaries like The Shock Doctrine to music-based docs on Oasis (Supersonic) and Coldplay (A Sky Full of Stars). On the scripted front, Whitecross directed the terrific musical biopic about Ian Dury, Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, starring Andy Serkis, and the very personal 2012 drama Ashes, starring Jodie Whittaker and Luke Evans.
Most recently, Whitecross directed the Showtime docuseries The Kings which covers the boxing careers of Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Roberto Duran, and Tommy Hearns against the backdrop of ‘80s politics and world events.
When plotting his new project on the Paralympics, Whitecross’s main focus was on the athletes themselves—their stories and their abilities. As Whitecross told me, “I’m a runner. I’m never going to compete in the Olympics, so that’s not all that interesting. But take someone with no legs who can run—that’s interesting.” His intent was to show these athletes from all over the world as real competitors with grueling training regimens and the extraordinary results that come from their efforts.
What Whitecross didn’t necessarily expect was for world events to collide with his coverage of a sporting event, but as John Lennon once said, “Life is what happens while you are busy making other plans.” After receiving the cry for help from Nilofar Bayat, Whitecross began working any and all international contacts he had while preparing to film the Tokyo Paralympics. As Mat told me, “You can fall into despair, but despair isn’t useful unless it pushes you into doing something.” Still, as Whitecross connected with people from the press, former military, and humanitarians who lived and breathed the challenges of Afghanistan, many came back and said, “I don’t know what the fuck to do either.”
As desperate times call for desperate measures, Whitecross turned to social media to see if anyone might be able to assist Bayat and her husband Ramesh (who is also disabled) in escaping from a country on the brink. Ultimately, it was a freelance journalist from Spain, Antonio Pampliega (who was once held captive for ten months in Syria while covering the civil war there) who helped Bayat and her husband get onto a fly list out of Afghanistan.
As difficult as getting on a fly list may have been, everyone involved soon learned that would be the easy part. The journey to the airport in Kabul was a perilous one—full of Taliban checkpoints and constant danger from the fundamentalist soldiers who make up their ranks.
Bayat and Ramesh were able to make it to the outskirts of the airport, but because of Taliban guards were unable to gain entry—despite having all the proper paperwork. When Bayat challenged the soldiers blocking their way, she and Ramesh were beaten and all of their luggage was taken away from them. While Nilofar was suffering from the blows of the Taliban, she told me she wept not because she was being beaten, but because such “illiterate and dangerous people” were taking over her country. “How could this happen,” she thought.
As for an escape, they would have to find another way.
They were able to get a message through to a friend who pointed them to an entrance at the airport that was only intended for the military. They were able to connect with a German soldier who let them through the gate, and they were then taken into the airport where they waited for a flight for two days without food. There, she saw thousands of people who had lost everything: their belongings, their families, their hopes, and their country.
Upon arrival in Bilbao, with only the clothes on their back and the basic necessities provided by Spain’s refugee program, the Bayats were finally safe. Since then, Nilofar has met with the Prime Minister of Spain and joined the country’s wheelchair basketball team. Nilofar will continue to speak out on behalf of the people of Afghanistan. Her greatest desire is to help other refugees gain safe harbor, and to encourage other nations not to accept the Taliban as a legitimate government. Most of all, she wants the world not to forget about Afghanistan.
Were this a movie, this might be where the credits roll and we could feel good about the escape and survival of two brave refugees in a new land. But life is always more complicated than the movies. Nilofar and Ramesh Bayat arrived in Spain with no belongings, without speaking the language, and with Ramesh needing a new prosthetic as the one he was wearing had caused an infection in his leg.
This is where Mat Whitecross re-enters the story. He and Calum Campbell (one of the researchers on the Paralympics project) began a fundraiser at justgiving.com for the Bayats, initially hoping to raise just £500 to take care of their most basic needs. The generosity of the givers soon allowed Mat and Calum to raise their goal not once, but multiple times. After just two weeks, they settled on a goal of £15,000, and they reached it with just a little extra to spare. These funds will allow Ramesh Bayat to get a new prosthesis and give the two of them some cushion as they learn a new language and search for work.
It’s a difficult road ahead for Nilofar and Ramesh. They both have disabilities and they are strangers in a strange land. On top of that, their worries about home have not abated with their escape. Their family members remain in danger, and the future of the troubled country they both love is very much in doubt.
In speaking with Nilofar and Mat about their extraordinary and dangerous journey, it occurred to me how much luck has to do with all of our lives. But for an accident of birth, we could easily be in each other’s place. There is a song that rang through my head after I hung up the phone with Nilofar: U2’s “The Crumbs From Your Table.” In it, Bono sings
“where you live should not decide
whether you live or whether you die.”
But it does.
That left me asking: what is our responsibility to one another? And more particularly, what is the responsibility of those of us who are more fortunate to those who are less?
Perhaps the answer is a simple one. To help.