Childhood cannot be taken for granted in a place like Afghanistan.
On a walk through Kabul, it is inevitable to meet street children by the hundreds, rugged, rumpled, with wandering eyes and swollen red hands in the bitter cold of the Afghan winter.
Many of these children are orphans, who are a by-product of more than three decades of war. Many are left to their own devices to keep themselves alive while also struggling to support their families, including drug addict fathers, younger siblings, and unemployable mothers. For these children, opium is often an alternative to food – it helps to forget an empty stomach.
They stand on the sidewalks and offer to wash cars. On the road, they wipe windshields with dirty pieces of cloth. They beg. If given an apple, they often refuse and ask for money instead. In the bazaar, they run behind customers pushing heavy wheelbarrows full of goods. In exchange for a few cents, they fight evil spirits and bad omens by swirling tin cans full of coal and pungent incense.
Ahmad, a boy with beaming eyes, a round face and reddish scruffy hair is one of these children and a main protagonist in Buzkashi Boys (2012), the Oscar-nominated short film by Sam French.
The film – one of the first feature productions to be fully shot on location in Kabul – is a coming of age tale that offers a glimpse into Afghan society from the point of view of two boys in their early teens.
Ahmad is a street urchin, with little means and big dreams. Rafi is the son of a blacksmith, a lanky teenager, cautious and weary. Ahmad and Rafi are best friends.
Rafi is caught in the cycle of tradition and repetition: he, like his father and his grandfather before him, is meant to be a blacksmith. Ahmad, on the other hand, is alone in the world, a marginality that liberates him from social constraints and expectations. While his determination pushes him to pursue his dreams, this, eventually, leads him down a path of unexpected consequences.
Ahmad wants to become a buzkashi player. Buzkashi is a traditional Afghan sport, a kind of polo, played on horses with the carcass of a goat or a calf. Epic tales are revisited during games of buzkashi and players are part of an ancient tradition of courage and bravery, powerful symbols of noble manhood. Ahmed wants to be one of them, he wants his name to be remembered for generations to come.
Rafi tries to dissuade him, but eventually is also entrapped by the power of dreams.
Buzkashi Boys is part of a larger endeavour. Sam French and the film’s producer, Ariel Nasr, set up Afghan Film Project, an NGO to build capacity and revive the tradition of Afghan filmmaking – one of the many aspects of Afghan culture decimated by decades of war.
The majority of actors and production crew who helped created the Buzkashi Boys are not professionals and were trained on the job. Fawad Mohammadi, the actor who plays Rafi, is a street kid Sam French met on a Kabul street corner as he attempted to sell him a map of the city.
Part of the ambition behind Buzkashi Boys is to trigger more locally produced feature films, and revamp Afghan cinema production and debate. This would be a major step toward depicting a different and more complex portrait of the war torn country. In a place where many obstacles exist in the way of filmmaking, this is not an easy goal. There is a lack of technical resources and expertise in Afghanistan, as well as a constant necessity to maintain good “diplomatic” relations with potential donors and those in power.
There is no happy ending in Buzkashi Boys, just as there are few happy endings in the lives of many ordinary children in Afghanistan.
Ahmad falls short of reaching his dream and yet he experiences a moment of true elation. Rafi, after an attempt to rebel, goes back to the place that is meant for him in the world. He goes back to his father’s workshop and learns the skill of blacksmithing. The decision to return to this world is his own – he has discovered that he has the possibility to choose his own course.
Buzkashi Boys manages to find an elegant and fine balance between realism and poetry. The beauty of the snow-clad landscape of Kabul contributes to the magic. The city’s combination of snow and mud is a powerful metaphor for contemporary Afghanistan: a mixture of harsh reality and transient, potential beauty.
Sam French began his presentation at TEDx Kabul in October 2012 with a provocative question: “Can storytelling change the world?” He did not answer the question, but let his film do so instead. Storytelling may not change the world, but can help produce empowering counter-narratives and allow the voices of the dispossessed to emerge. These stories play an important part in building a more intricate and subtle image of the world – a picture that those in power do not always want us to see.