notes from abroad

Shooting a Film in Afghanistan Takes Courage, Creativity, and a Dead Goat

A player carries the goat carcass in a buzkashi match in Afghanistan. Photo: Kelsey Noonan

American films about Afghanistan have had a good run at the Oscars lately. Both 2011’s Hell and Back Again and 2010’s Restrepo earned Best Documentary nominations for their harrowing looks at troops under fire. And this year, another U.S.-directed film on Afghanistan is in the hunt for a nod from the Academy Awards, but it’s fictional, it’s not about war, and it doesn’t feature any Americans. It is, however, the first of its ilk to feature dead livestock in a central role. Buzkashi Boys, one of eleven live-action short films to make the Academy’s short list (the five nominees will be announced on January 10), is the scripted tale of two boys in Kabul who dream of playing the Afghan national sport of buzkashi, which is kind of like polo, played atop horses, but with a headless, disemboweled goat carcass as the ball.

There haven’t been many non-documentaries filmed in Afghanistan over the past twelve years, and for good reason. Feature films typically come with unwieldy and conspicuous equipment, large crews, and actors who’d prefer not to be placed in the range of suicide bombs. For instance, Zero Dark Thirty’s retelling of the hunt for Osama bin Laden through Afghanistan and Pakistan was shot in Jordan and India; 2007’s The Kite Runner was shot in China. And the docs can only manage it by staying very light: Restrepo and Hell and Back Again had a crew of one or, at most, two journalists embedded with the military with a video camera, and they were surrounded by trained men with guns.

Shooting on location, though, was the only option for Buzkashi Boys director Sam French, a 36-year-old Pennsylvania native who moved to Kabul in 2008 and wanted to make a film that accurately reflected his adopted home to Afghan and Western audiences alike. Before he’d arrived to live with his then-girlfriend, his vision of the city had been shaped entirely by the media. “I thought I was literally going to be sitting in a mud hut with bullets whizzing by every time I opened the door,” he told me in late November when I spent Thanksgiving visiting Kabul. “And it wasn’t that. It was a thriving, vibrant city that has a lot of complexity, which I don’t think is portrayed much in the news.” I had the same experience in the city: Abject terror that I was going to die on my vacation quickly gave way to enjoying daily life in a fascinating, functioning city of 3.3 million where existence just happens to be tinged by the slight possibility that you might be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The film focuses on two preteens, one the son of a blacksmith and the other a beggar, the kind often seen at busy Kabul intersections trying to bless people’s cars with burning seeds. As the pair wanders the city, imagining different lives, they come upon a buzkashi match in a blizzard and watch the horsemen toss around an 80-pound matt of fur and legs caked with blood and dirt, while a turbaned old man with a bullhorn rides among the chapandaz (buzkashi players), announcing the play-by-play. Inspired, they scheme to find a way to get their own horse and play. The film explores whether they will be able to escape their respective circumstances, or are they, like the country they live in, trapped in a cycle of history?

According to French, Buzkashi Boys is the first time a mixed Western and Afghan crew has made a movie in the city since the Taliban banned filmmaking and destroyed all available film reels in 1996. The country’s movie industry was basically forced to start over after the Taliban lost control of the government in 2001. Since then, a handful of homegrown filmmakers, like Siddiq Barmak, whose 2003 Osama won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film, have risen to international acclaim. But most native productions are straight-to-DVD remakes of Indian and Pakistani gangster flicks. Making movies in Afghanistan is a far different proposition for American filmmakers now: The Taliban is resurgent, and it reviles both their art form and their nationality.

French and his producer Ariel Nasr spent a year and a half getting the Afghan government’s support, showing the script to the Office of Information and Culture to prove it was culturally sensitive. But even government-provided police protection wasn’t a guarantee against a surprise attack. “We thought about this a lot,” said French. “The Taliban banned filmmaking. They don’t like it very much. We are in a war here. But we weighed the risks. We talked to a lot of experts about security. We made sure everybody was comfortable with what we were doing, and we took as many precautions as we could.”

The most significant precaution was the decision to make it a short film. A feature would have required them to stay at certain locations for weeks at a time, whereas with a short, they could be in and out of locations in a single day. They streamlined the script to 29 minutes and shot the two buzkashi matches in the film in bits and pieces over sixteen days of filming. To keep their crew of 45 to 50 safe, it was imperative to keep the production a moving target. “We kept our ear very closely to what was going on, and we didn’t tell anybody where we were shooting or when we were shooting,” said French. “If we were going to shoot in Murad Khane [Kabul’s Old City, where the blacksmith shop was located] on Thursday, then Tuesday night we’d call the crew and say, ‘Actually, we have to shoot tomorrow,’ so the timing was varied. We were aware of those issues.” In late January 2011, days before production began, a bomb exploded at a Finest supermarket frequented by foreigners and killed nine people. One day after they shot in Murad Khane, a rocket landed (but didn’t explode) in the market 100 meters from where they’d been filming. And midway through production, a suicide bomber attacked the City Center shopping mall, also frequented by Westerners, killing two guards who stopped him at the entrance.

Even shooting in an abandoned building had its risks. The movie’s most important location, the spot where the two boys sit to plan how to get a horse, was the European-style Darul Aman Palace, or the King’s Palace; once grand, it was meant to house the Afghan Parliament but is now a spectacular, bombed-out ruin looming on a hill in the western outskirts of the city. The Soviets set it on fire in 1978; then in the nineties, the Mujahideen shelled it, replacing the windows with giant holes. The third-floor hallway is a massive crater that reaches all the way to the ground floor, and all that’s left of the ceiling domes are girders twisted like steel spider webs against the sky. When you mention it to Kabul residents, most of them reply, “Isn’t that whole place booby-trapped?” I went to see it, and getting in for just a few minutes required my journalist friend to sweet-talk the armed guards, who later tracked us down in what may have been a shakedown for money or something creepier — so to get permission to spend days there shooting a film is a pretty impressive, and terrifying, feat of producing.

Security concerns aside, nothing about the Buzkashi Boys production was easy or predictable. To make the movie accessible to Afghans and suitable for broadcast on Afghan television, French shot in Dari, the country’s most widely spoken language, and cast Afghan actors, both of which proved incredibly difficult. For one, French doesn’t speak Dari fluently. For another, he says, “there’s no central casting in Kabul,” which meant going around to refugee camps looking for children to play the two lead roles. “You go into a classroom where they’re teaching these kids from the street, and you first of all have to explain what a film is, and then you have to explain the process of auditions.”

To play the blacksmith’s son who dreams of escaping the family business, French settled on Fawad Mohammadi, now 14, whom French had met while Mohammadi was selling maps and “bodyguard” services to expats on Chicken Street, Kabul’s main shopping district. “I just kept coming back to Fawad because he seemed to be the character I’d written,” said French. “He’s such a great man, and he’s incredibly nice, and he had that sort of indomitable spirit. I mean, he wasn’t bowed by being really, really poor.” Mohammadi’s father had died when he was little, and he was using the few dollars a day he earned selling maps to support his mother. His English was halting, and he’d just started school at age 12 thanks to donations from foreigners he’d met on Chicken Street.

Every day, it seemed, something would come up that required French and Nasr to rearrange the shooting schedule or rewrite the script. Buzkashi matches are notoriously hard to pin down, as they are often announced only a few hours before they take place to avoid being targets for attacks. (French had to rally his jetlagged crew to shoot a match as soon as they arrived in Kabul, after a scheduled game had been abruptly moved up two days.) At a later match, French made the mistake of trying to direct the buzkashi. “I’m like, ‘Look, this is how we make a film. We’re going to do multiple takes at multiple angles. We’re going to film a shot, I’m gonna yell ‘Cut,’ everyone’s gonna stop, we’re going to do it again. Then we’re gonna move the camera over there,’” he says. “I had to explain how to make a film to 40 horsemen who are twelve feet tall on the back of horses, with this crazy buzkashi gear on, who are all looking at me like I’m a little bit crazy.” Every time he directed a particular player to pick up the goat, the wrong player would snatch it up, until finally they just ignored French and kept on playing their match. He did talk one guy into doing a scripted scene, but he got bored half an hour in and just rode off.  

Two years later, the film has traveled all around the world to film festivals, though its most exciting premiere was in Kabul this November, where the Afghan audience laughed at the jokes in Dari that seem to be over Western audiences’ heads and gave it a standing ovation. On the evening I interviewed French, his star, Mohammedi, stopped by to visit, and I realized that he was the kid who’d assisted me shopping on Chicken Street earlier that day. Mohammedi has a great smile and wore a very cool leather motorcycle jacket. His English is now incredible, and he hopes to be an airline pilot, though he’s never been on a plane and the only time he’s ever left Kabul was to visit the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif. He’s been recognized two or three times on Chicken Street, which is exciting, but when French told Mohammedi he wanted to take him to Los Angeles to walk the red carpet if the film gets an Oscar nomination, both the concept of Los Angeles and the Oscars seemed a bit beyond his comprehension. “I would like to see how is the people and also say to them the good news about Afghanistan, because lots of the news from Afghanistan is just bad news,” said Mohammedi. “I would be happy to be there.” He left with four copies of the Buzkashi Boys DVD, which he hoped to sell on the street for $20 apiece.

Buzkashi Boys Trailer from Sam French on Vimeo.

Filming in Kabul With Courage and a Dead Goat