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Oscar-Nominated Film Breathes New Life Into Afghan Cinema


"Buzkashi Boys" uses Afghanistan's pulsating national sport as the backdrop for its heartrending tale of two impoverished boys growing up on the streets of Kabul
The new Afghan film "Buzkashi Boys," has earned international critical acclaim for its poignant portrayal of two impoverished boys in Kabul struggling to realize their dreams.

While earning accolades abroad, including an Oscar nomination, the film has also made waves in Afghanistan, where it has invigorated the small local film scene as it recovers from decades of conflict.

Afghan cinema had to endure particular hardship under the Taliban regime, when films were outlawed and movie theaters were burned down.

“Buzkashi Boys” is one of the first major films to be set and shot entirely in Kabul.

It is also the first to be produced by the Afghan Film Project, a nonprofit production company that aims to rebuild the fledgling Afghan film scene by mentoring and training local filmmakers on major film productions.

During the production of “Buzkashi Boys,” a dozen aspiring Afghan filmmakers, some with technical skills, the majority with only a passion for filmmaking, were tutored through the production and post-production process, with many getting their first opportunity to write, produce, and direct a major film.

'About, By, And For Afghans'

Sam French, an American documentary maker who directed the film and founded the Afghan Film Project, said in an October interview with RFE/RL that “Buzkashi Boys” is a testament to the success of those Afghan filmmakers.

He hopes the endeavor will provide Afghan filmmakers with the know-how to produce their own films and spur the growth of the local film sector.

“When I came here I realized there wasn’t really a functioning film industry," he says. "I thought there was a need to build capacity in the industry. We wanted to find a way for [Afghans] to actually work on a production. We worked side by side to make a film that was about Afghans, by Afghans, and for Afghans.”

French was without a job and had barely an understanding of the country when he moved to Kabul in 2008.

He says he expected to be hunkered down in a bunker but soon realized the city was full of inspiring, untold stories.

French maintains that it was a desire to tell these unreported stories that inspired him to start writing the script for "Buzkashi Boys" in 2009.

"When I came [to Afghanistan] I expected a country full of bombs and bullets," he says. "But what I found was a country full of stories and people who welcomed me with open arms. So, I opened a production company to try and tell stories that the media doesn’t tell; [to tell stories] that are beyond the war.”

The result was “Buzkashi Boys,” a 30-minute film shot over 16 days in Kabul in the winter of 2011.

According to French, the majority of the funding for the film came from a $200,000 grant given to his production company by the U.S. State Department.

WATCH: The official international trailer for "Buzkashi Boys"

“Buzkashi Boys” is a coming-of-age story about two poor Afghan boys, one an orphaned urchin and the other the defiant son of a blacksmith.

Both boys, who are best friends, fight to realize their common dream of escaping crippling poverty and the streets of Kabul to play buzkashi, the national sport of Afghanistan.

Buzkashi is a brutal version of equestrian polo played with the carcass of a dead goat rather than a ball.

Audiences from around the world have heaped praise on French's heartrending film, which has been shown in cinemas and international film festivals throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.

Last year it won the best drama award at the LA Shorts Fest, and on January 10 it was nominated for an Academy Award in the Live Action Short Film category.

Shooting Beset By Problems

"Buzkashi Boys" is the result of two years of constant setbacks and grueling delays. Filming in Kabul, a heavily-militarized city, posed many challenges, which threatened to derail the film on numerous occasions.

"We had to get permission from the Afghan government, from the local police, and the military to film," says French. "Finding the crew also took a long time. We were also battling weather the whole time. It would snow one day and then the next day it would be bright and sunny so continuity was a big issue. Logistically, it was also a challenge."

Director Sam French (left) says he had to overcome many challenges to complete the filming of the "Buzkashi Boys" in Kabul.
Director Sam French (left) says he had to overcome many challenges to complete the filming of the "Buzkashi Boys" in Kabul.

Since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, the Afghan film industry has experienced a quiet resurgence.

In the past decade, the success of Afghan films such as "Osama" and "Kandahar" have fueled huge interest in filmmaking.

But films of such caliber have been in short supply. Even before the arrival of war in Afghanistan some three decades ago, the film scene was small, with only a few movies being made each year.

Most of the films Afghans watched were from Bollywood or the Soviet Union.

In French's opinion, imported foreign films have had an important influence on the current movie scene, where many local filmmakers produce copycat versions of popular action films from India and Pakistan.

According to the American filmmaker, who is writing the script for a new political thriller set in Kabul, a "homegrown-generated" Afghan film sector has yet to become firmly established, but the ingredients for it to succeed are there provided that proper resources are allocated to the industry.

“[Afghan] culture is steeped in poetry and stories," he says. "There is [a] hunger to tell stories. But the problem is the lack of capacity, the lack of skills, [the] lack of resources, and the lack of equipment. [The Afghan film industry] is still a very nascent industry; it’s still fledgling. The filmmakers here need support.”

Editors' Note: This article was originally published on October 21, 2012.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.