“I’ll always have part of my heart there,” director Sam French says, discussing his move back to Los Angeles after working for nearly five years in Kabul, Afghanistan. It’s a Wednesday afternoon and French is swamped with interviews following the recent Oscar nomination for his live-action short film “Buzkashi Boys,” a portrait of two young teenagers living in modern-day Afghanistan who dream of playing the dangerous blood sport “buzkashi.”
Buzkashi is a national sport in which horseback contestants compete for a headless goat – an Afghan pastime that immediately intrigued French and co-writer Martin Roe. Not only the film’s director, French is also co-founder of the Afghan Film Project: a non-profit organization that aims to tell Afghan stories while rebuilding the nation’s film industry. In his chat with the Tribune, French elaborated more on the project’s mission, the adolescent stars at the heart of “Buzkashi Boys” and how he learned of the his Oscar nomination for Best Live Action Short Film.
Q: So to begin with, what inspired you to make this film?
A: Buzkashi is played in Central Asia and the region, and it was originally brought over, you know, hundreds and hundreds of years ago. It’s a big sport over there. So when I first went over to Kabul in 2008, I went and saw it and it was my first encounter with the sport and it was absolutely staggering and tremendous.
I originally went to Kabul to follow a woman. I was a filmmaker in Los Angeles and my girlfriend went over there to work at the British Embassy – she’s British – so I went over there to follow her. From seeing the news, I expected that I’d be living in a bunker and dodging bullets every day, but I found that the country is complex and full of stories, so I decided to stay and start a production company called Development Pictures.
My friend and colleague who I went to film school with, Martin Roe, came and visited me in 2009, and he said, “You know, what’re you doing making these documentaries? You should make a narrative fiction film.” So we spent a week running around Kabul and running film and that became "Buzkashi Boys." It was based on the locations and stories that I had seen, coming through Martin’s fresh eyes when he came to Kabul.
We didn’t want to just do a film, we wanted to do something bigger, so me and my colleagues Ariel Nasr and Leslie Knott started a non-profit organization called the Afghan Film Project, which aims to train Afghan filmmakers to work in the film industry, and that’s who we produced “Buzkashi Boys” with. “Buzkashi Boys” is actually the offset of a training project, in which we trained 12 Afghan trainees.
Q: How long did it take for you to shoot “Buzkashi Boys” and what were some of the challenges you faced?
A: It took about a year in pre-production because it can be quite challenging to shoot a film in Afghanistan. With a documentary it’s fine – you get a cameraman and director and you can run around no problem, but we had 50 people on-set, with a crane and dolly. The challenges were immense but our producer, Ariel Nasr, worked miracles to make it happen. We spent a year in pre-production and getting the government’s permission to shoot the film and getting to know the communities where we filmed so we were welcome in the communities where we were filming.
We shot for 15 days in February 2011 and we had to bring all the crew and the equipment in from Los Angeles and Canada, and we had to find qualified Afghan crew members to work on the production as well as our trainees. So there were definitely challenges, along with, also, the present lack of security, which included not publishing our shooting schedule and getting government and local police protection in the areas we filmed. We were very careful about that. We took a long time to make sure we were safe during the shoot.
Q: Anything you can tell me about casting and working with the two boys who play Ahmad and Rafi?
A: Sure. In Afghanistan, it’s not like you can go to central casting and put out a casting call and kids will show up for auditions. It was definitely challenging to find a young actor. We actually went to various shelters to find a kid, but of course, we had to explain what a film was and what auditions were. It was hard but we were lucky to find a group of older filmmakers who had been around for forever and out of that group, one of them had a son, Jawanmard (Paiz), who’s been acting since he was very young. We were very lucky to find him and he plays the street kid, Ahmad, in the film.
Interestingly, with Fawad (Mohammadi), I kept coming back to this kid I met on the streets actually selling bubblegum and maps to foreigners. He was working on the streets, and he was basically the character that Martin and I had written so we ended up casting him in the film.
Q: Where were you when you learned of your Oscar nomination and what was your reaction?
A: I was in Los Angeles, actually staying on my cousin’s couch and we woke up at 5:15 in the morning because the nominations were at 5:30, and we were glued to the TV, obviously. When we found out we were nominated, I immediately called Fawad over in Kabul and shared the news with him – he was actually in a café on the same street that he had sold maps. He was overwhelmed with the news. He started crying and didn’t really understand what it meant, and actually thought that it was up for best Afghan film. I had to tell him that it was up for the best film in the world! It’s our dream now to bring him over to Los Angeles for the Oscars and yeah, I think it’d change his life. We’re setting up a crowd-funding campaign now to bring him over and any excess would go toward his college education.
Q: What do you hope audiences take away from seeing this film?
A: Well, it was conceived as a training program – a lot of the trainees have already gone on to make films of their own and get involved in the industry. The other reason for making the film was to show another side of the country. Every time I come back to the West, I talk to people and they think the same exact thing I had thought before I went: that Afghanistan is, you know, full of terrorists that hate us and it’s a country of war and people wonder why we’re there.
I think one of the motivations behind “Buzkashi Boys” was to show that they’re real people with real hopes and real dreams. They’re just like us. My hope – now that we’re nominated – is that the film will be seen by more people and hopefully change perceptions about the country.
“Buzkashi Boys” and other Oscar-nominated short films are now playing at Harkins Camelview 5 in Scottsdale. They will be available on iTunes and video-on-demand beginning Feb. 19.