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  • Lorna Ward

Goat grabbing film a faithful portrait of Afghan culture

ISAF personnel have attended the premier of a new movie by award-winning filmmaker Sam French based around Afghanistan’s national sport of Buzkashi – a game of horse polo played with a dead goat. I wrote this blog from Kabul.
Still from the film ‘Buskashi Boys’

There was no red carpet, no celebrities and no paparazzi. This was a low-key affair and not your conventional Premiere. Special guest and director of the film, Sam French, wore a three piece grey suit, rather incongruously accessorized with muddy walking boots. Or at least they would have been incongruous even by the most retro Hollywood, Paris or London styles. Here in Kabul, it would have been imprudent to wear anything finer particularly at this time of year.

He was here to introduce us to his new award-winning short film Buzkashi Boys. It’s a coming of age story about two young lads in Kabul who have dreams of becoming Buzkashi riders. These are the gladiators of Afghan society; men who in their traditional robes and hats, with flowing beards, career around a dirt pitch on horseback, sparring over the prize – a headless goat. The match starts with the carcass in the centre of a circle, surrounded by the players of two opposing teams. The object of the game is to get control of the headless beast and get it to the scoring zone. This sounds easy until you picture hordes of other buzkashi (translated literally means ‘goat grabbing’) riders charging while leaning off their horses to steal the carcass. Those who reach the scoring zone – and they are few and far between – are rewarded with points and, not insignificantly, money, fine clothes and mythical status.

For our evening of entertainment, we were joined by ISAF Deputy Commander, Lieutenant General Nick Carter, who by sheer coincidence had just returned from the real thing. That afternoon he had been a guest of the Afghan government and treated to the spectacle that is the country’s national sport. So by the evening, he was well versed in the rules, the culture and just what place this sport occupies in Afghan folklore. He had been impressed by the resilience, the raw aggression and unflinching machismo shown by the riders in what is clearly a very dangerous sport. Much like in the film he said the arena was full of young boys with eyes on stalks, dreaming of becoming one of the men in the ring.
Still from the film ‘Buskashi Boys’

Those boys are portrayed in Sam French’s film by two of Kabul’s young residents . One is the son of a film-maker who is working to resurrect the Afghan film-making industry and an aspiring actor. The other, Tom told us, was “selling maps on chicken street” when he met him. He was unassuming and so earnest that the director cast him on the spot. Ironically in the film, and to great effect, he cast the real street-boy as the ironmonger’s son and the budding actor as the street urchin.

The film shows off the spectacular scenery around Kabul and tells a simple but very moving tale. It is completely faithful to Afghan culture, and I’m told the way people live, speak and behave. And that is testament to its director’s aims and the way he goes about making his films. Sam French has been in Afghanistan for four years having fallen in love with a woman and then the country he followed her to. With his small American crew, he trained up an entire Afghan film crew in Kabul. The cast is the genuine article, and there is no trick to the filming. An old Russian crane and creaky ‘dolly’ were found and dusted off and the crew braved the odd bomb threat as they filmed in the middle of bustling markets in the centre of town. Tom mobilised passionate Afghan film-makers who had been left frustrated when their industry was decimated by thirty years of civil war and the restrictive Taliban rule.

Together they put together a film about hope for the future, following your dreams and the importance of family. It’s already inspired one Afghan – the young street seller who stars in Buzkashi Boys is now at school and getting top grades. He apparently has his sights firmly set on a career as an airline pilot. Sam French hopes his film will encourage other Afghans to have hope, and the international audience to see the beautiful country and people that he has come to love, rather than the one of news reports.

So far, Buzkashi Boys has won awards and rave reviews; there’s even hope it might be nominated for an Oscar. As much as I am sure he will appreciate the professional recognition; I do not think it will be long before Sam French is back on the streets of Kabul in his muddy boots, embarking on the greater challenge of a feature-length movie this time; determined to put his Afghanistan back on the map for the right reasons.

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