“This is going to be awesome,” boomed the American director through his megaphone.
The Afghan horsemen, who were lined up in front of him on a muddy plain close to the outskirts of Kabul, boomed back: “Allah Akbar – God is Great”, as they punched the air with their fists.
So began Buzkashi Boys – an American-funded film whose crew includes the cameraman from the Oscar-winning film The Hurt Locker.
The film, which finished shooting on Friday, is based around Afghanistan’s national sport – Buzkashi.
The game is a largely lawless and violent mix of rugby and polo played with a beheaded calf for a ball. Up to fifty riders compete for money as they try to rip the headless carcass from each another before dumping it in a chalk circle in the middle of a large pitch. The best players, whose horses are worth up to $10,000, are revered as national heroes in a country that lacks sports idols.
The men behind Buzkashi Boys – Hollywood-trained American director Sam French and Afghan-Canadian producer Ariel Nasr – hope their film will kick start the regeneration of an Afghan film industry that decades of war and Taliban repression has left in tatters.
When the Taliban seized control of the country, the hard-line Islamic regime immediately banned film production, closed down cinemas and later went on to destroy two thirds of the nation’s film archive.
Since then, only a tiny number of big budget Afghan films have been made in the country. Afghan audiences fill this void with films from Bollywood, Iran and America.
“Afghans are an incredibly passionate people and they are very romantic in their out look on life. There’s a hunger to tell their own story,” said French, who co-founded the Afghan Film Project, which trains, mentors and supports the next generation of Afghan filmmakers.
“They have a rich history of story telling, but they just don’t have the resources to tell their stories through film.”
Buzkashi Boys consciously avoids the stereotypical portrayal of Afghanistan as a country torn apart by war.
Instead, the plot centres on two young boys – a street urchin and the son of a blacksmith – as they follow their dream of becoming legendary Buzkashi riders.
“In the West, a story about Afghanistan is a story about war, but I wanted to show the world that this is not just a country at war but is full of people who have dreams and hopes like everywhere else,” said French, who moved to Afghanistan three years ago for an English woman he’d fallen in love with.
But Afghanistan’s tumultuous history still forms the backdrop to some of the scenes. The various wars that devastated the country are alluded to in the choice of set location. Some of the scenes are shot in Darulaman Palace, whose remaining bullet-pocked walls, which once housed Afghanistan’s royal family, were shelled to the verge of collapse during the bloody Civil War of the early 1990s.
French, who co-wrote the script, also wanted to avoid telling a story that only appealed to western audiences.
By the end of the film, neither of the two children have fulfilled their dream: one lies dead, killed by the Buzkashi horse he stole, while the other returns to his father’s workshop to fulfil his destiny as a blacksmith.
“In western culture, it’s expected that children rebel against their parents. We idolise characters like James Dean,” said French. “But here it’s tough to go against the grain of a culture which is so family orientated and so steeped in tradition.”
Finding child actors in a country that lacks the most basic film infrastructure presented a major challenge for the film’s producers.
After weeks of auditions, the makers finally settled on a street urchin they’d found selling poorly drawn maps to foreigners on one of Kabul’s main tourist streets.
“It has been really hard. It’s my first film, but I have really enjoyed it,” said 12-year-old Fawad Mohammadi, who supports his widowed mother with the $10 he earns on a good day. “I have learnt how to act sad by remembering the death of my father.”
Fawad’s co-star, 13-year-old Jawan Mard, is far more experienced. The precocious Mard, whose favourite film is Scarface, attended the Cannes film festival when he was five-years-old and directed his first film when he was eight.
“It’s great to have a part in this film. It’s so rare that you see a film as advanced as this one made in our country,” said Mard, whose father is a famous Afghan actor.
The challenges of filming in Afghanistan are vast. Permission from the government, the police and the army took months to obtain.
Open sewers, streets ankle deep in mud, snowstorms, unruly horses, over-zealous police escorts, crowds of market goers and security threats have all taken their toll on the crew.
“We’ve had to deal with Buzkashi players who’ll ride off mid-shoot because they don’t understand why we need to get so many shots,” said Nasr, a 32-year-old from Halifax, Canada. “But the weather has been our biggest problem. We’ve had to shoot a lot of the film in howling blizzards, which isn’t great for continuity.”
But despite the challenges of shooting a major production in Afghanistan, Nasr believes Buzkashi Boys will attract badly needed investment to the country’s film industry, creating jobs for Afghan filmmakers who lack the resources and technical ability to produce quality films.
“You’re told as a rule of thumb never to work with children and never to work with animals,” said French. “But we did both and we did it in Afghanistan. We have proved it is all possible.”