As with all of our Festival Award-winning short films, “Buzkashi Boys” ends and all you want to say is “wow.” The film captures a culture rarely seen as two young boys have dreams of athletic stardom in Afghanistan. Their world feels so rich and fascinating because it’s showing us a side to a country we only know about from the news. We were able to talk with writer/director Sam French about his short film and what drew him to film in Kabul.
Heartland Film Festival: You are a filmmaker who grew up in Philadelphia and is now making stories set in Afghanistan. What was that transition like and what is it about this country that makes it such a ripe place for stories?
Sam: I initially moved to Afghanistan for love – to follow my girlfriend, who had been posted to the British Embassy in Kabul. Like most Americans, I had a very different view of the city I found upon arrival. Expecting to be hunkered down in a bunker, I was instead warmly welcomed by the Afghans I met, and encountered a city rich with stories the news ignored in favor of sensationalist coverage of the war. Afghanistan has a rich history of storytelling, and sits at the nexus of many different cultures. It is a Central Asian country, strategically located on the old silk route, and has experienced the ebb and flow of trade and geopolitics throughout its history.
What we see on the news is bombs, bullets, and burkas – and these are indeed important stories to tell, but I was interested in pulling back the veil and finding stories that revealed another side of the country. The important thing for me is to try in a small way to show what I have found in my journeys – that whether you are from Philadelphia or Kabul, you share the same hopes and dreams for a better future, and in the end, we are not all that different after all.
Heartland Film Festival: How did the community in Kabul respond to you filming a movie in their city?
Sam: We were warmly welcomed by the communities in Kabul in which we filmed. We were fortunate to have the support of the Afghan government and Turquoise Mountain, an NGO which supports the teaching of traditional arts and crafts – and is restoring the old city of Murad Khane where we filmed a lot of the movie. Contrary to what I expected, I found a hunger here to tell real Afghan stories, and a desire to change the perception of this country as a terrorist haven. Once we explained what we were trying to do, we were overwhelmed by the hospitality of the people of Kabul.
Heartland Film Festival: Working with younger actors is always a bit of a gamble and your short film relies almost entirely on the performances of Fawad Mohammadi and Jawanmard Paiz. They were excellent in this movie. I was wondering what was it like filming with these first time actors. How did you make them act so naturalistic on film? What have they thought of the film?
Sam: You know what they say: never work with children or animals. We did both, in Afghanistan. It was a gamble, but I wanted to tell a coming of age story, because we can all relate to it – the leap to adulthood is universal across cultures. Sure, the dream of being Buzkashi riders is perhaps unique to Afghanistan, but the desire to forge your own future connects with audiences.
We spent a lot of time in rehearsal before filming. Fawad, our main actor, is actually a street-kid, who supports his mother by selling maps to Westerners in the market. He had never acted before, which was actually a bonus in my mind. He didn’t have any bad habits. Jawanmard, our other star, had acted before because his father is a filmmaker, so he helped Fawad with the technical aspects. The challenge was to first make them become friends in real life, and second to connect their lives with the characters they were playing – ground the story in their own struggles so they weren’t playing roles, but expressing their own feelings.
Heartland Film Festival: When a lot of stories deal with hope and being able to change your life, it becomes like a fairy tale. Your story is firmly set in reality. How important was that for you to tell the story in this fashion?
Sam: I played with a lot of different endings, but kept coming back to the reality of the situation here in Afghanistan. The fact is, it is an incredibly poor country, and it is extremely difficult to make a better future for yourself or your family. I wanted to reflect this reality, but I also wanted to show a small step towards adulthood – and that even if we are forced to let go of childish fantasies, the future can be shaped if we have the will to do so. It was a delicate balance, and I’m not sure if I entirely succeeded, but I’ll let the audience be the judge.
Heartland Film Festival: Are you planning to make another film in Afghanistan?
Sam: I run a company in Afghanistan called Development Pictures, that produces documentaries here for aid organizations and the news. We have a few projects at the moment – one about women who have been imprisoned for “moral crimes”, one about Mes Aynak, an ancient Buddhist archeological site near Kabul, and Afghanistan at Work, portraits of everyday Afghans who live and work here. Check out www.developmentpictures.com to see some of our previous work.
Beyond these projects, I’m currently writing another narrative film set in Afghanistan that will tackle issues more related to the war, religion, and love. Stay tuned!
Heartland Film Festival: What are the moving films that influenced you as a filmmaker?
Sam: As a filmmaker, I’m influenced mainly by Hollywood films – Fight Club, The Matrix, The English Patient – and so the interesting journey I’ve taken has been to open myself up to another way to tell stories. “Buzkashi Boys” has Hollywood elements, both in the story structure and the cinematography, but at its heart it is an Afghan tale, shaped by the experiences I’ve had and the people I’ve met here. In some ways it is more European as a result – grounded in the texture of the locations in which we filmed and portraying our characters in as realistic a way as possible. I’ve definitely evolved as a filmmaker in the process.
You can purchase tickets for “Buzkashi Boys” which will play in the program “Festival Shorts 2” for the following days…
– Friday October 19 at 3:15 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
– Saturday October 20 at 1:30 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
– Tuesday October 23 at 8 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
– Wednesday October 24 at 12:30 p.m. at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
– Thursday October 25 at 11:45 a.m. at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
– Friday October 26 at 11:30 a.m. at AMC Showplace Traders Point 12
– Saturday October 27 at 1:45 p.m. at AMC Castleton Square 14
Interview conducted by Austin Lugar