Growing up, Sarah Stunt always loved stories. The Toronto native was always a big reader, reading her first novel, Little Women, at just nine years old. She loved the history and romantic setting, drawing her to the visual, and she was immediately taken by the characters, seeing herself in the passionate and independent writer Jo March. At the time, the only way she could describe the feelings the book gave her was on paper. It was something that changed her life. Now, her talent communicating through the written word, and that passion that started at just nine-years-old, has propelled Stunt’s career, and she is recognized around the world as an outstanding writer.
Stunt’s work has impressed international audiences for many years, but it was writing the impactful documentary Girl Unbound that she considers the highlight of her career. The film is about an exceptionally brave girl living in Waziristan, Pakistan, “one of the most dangerous places on earth.” Maria Toorpakai defies the Taliban, disguising herself as a boy, so she can play sports freely, something the Taliban strictly prohibits girls from doing. However, when she becomes a rising squash star, her true identity is revealed.
“I love working on documentaries as a writer. It’s always a long-term, nurturing relationship that changes and grows as time goes on. The lives of the characters are real. You don’t have to envision the conflicts, the inciting incidents or arcs, they evolve naturally on their own. Being able to capture it on the page is where the magic before the magic takes place, because in a matter of pages, your essence of the film presents itself and sets the stage moving forward. Being able to create some sort of affect, as the subject matter is usually from a human-interest point-of-view, is always the greatest outcome. You learn to champion your characters and unlike fiction, their stories continue to evolve after production is complete. It has a long-lasting affect,” said Stunt.
As the film’s writer, Sarah worked closely with the Producer, Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal, to develop the film’s basic concept, and from those initial ideas, she wrote the film’s script. Rosenthal says without Stunt, the film could never have been possible.
“Sarah is an exquisite writer whose skill and talent for her craft is obvious. Girl Unbound could not have been made without her guidance and her amazing abilities. The fantastic record of success the film had could not have been achieved if not for Sarah’s prodigious talents,” said Sanford-Rosenthal.
After being asked to premiere at the world-renowned Toronto International Film Festival last year, Girl Unbound received rave reviews from such top industry publications as The Hollywood Reporter and screened at more major international film festivals such as the DOC NYC (where the film was nominated for the festival’s Grand Jury Prize), Cleveland International Film Festival (where the film was nominated for Best Documentary), Athena Film Festival, and the Human Rights Watch Film Festival.
“I am so proud that the film has done so well. So much work, dedication and time went into the making of this film. With all the ups and down, everything from capturing the characters and their lives to the struggles of filmmaking in general, the final film is beautiful and powerful and executed in a way that will continue to generate a conversation after the film has been screened. This, in my opinion, is the true purpose of documentary film,” said Stunt.
With experience in writing for documentary, which for obvious reasons does not have scripted lines but requires a strict outline, Stunt was asked to join the film. The filmmakers knew they needed an experienced and skilled writer to properly tell such an important and captivating story. Originally, Stunt came to work on the film for a short time, but ended up as the lead writer, watching over the process from start to finish.
“The messaging is inspiring. The themes are varied with a focus on human rights, girls in sport, the right to education, and identity, but the courage of this one girl and the support of her family to use their platforms to inspire and make change is why it’s so important. Our main subject Maria is a force to be reckoned with, and if she can win and continue to do so, then it spreads the message of hope for others to do the same,” said Stunt. “The story was so strong and ever evolving. It took a lot of risk, courage and strength for all involved to actualize the final product and it inspired me to do my part as a writer, even though I wasn’t on the ‘frontlines’ of it all.”
In a world with a growing stereotype towards the Middle East, the story of Girl Unbound is of increasing importance. For Stunt, working on the film was not about the many awards and recognition both she and the film received, but about educating the viewers and inspiring audiences through Maria’s story.
“I loved working on this project. It took on many lives but the story that is out is the one that needs to be told. It has so much heart and invites viewers into a world that is both complicated and beautiful. It expels Western notions of Pakistan, sheds light on the lives of many but especially women and children and challenges old world notions that this generation of youths are trying to identify with and evolve from,” she concluded.