Ahmad Masood / Reuters, file
The Afghan national sport of buzkashi is played by men on horseback competing to throw a beheaded calf, goat, or sheep into a scoring circle.
KABUL, Afghanistan – In sports, there’s tough, and then there’s Afghan tough. In a country where war has been a way of life for decades, it only makes sense that Afghanistan’s national sport is a fierce one.
Unless you remember the movie "Rambo 3," chances are you’ve never heard of the sport “buzkashi” – but to the little boys and grown men of Afghanistan, it’s the stuff that dreams are made of. Born during the days of Genghis Khan, it’s a no-holds-barred sport where there are few rules and an abundance of violence.
Just like polo, the game is played entirely on horseback. But that’s where the similarity ends.
Instead of competing for possession of a ball, the players, called “chapandaz,” battle each other to gain control of a headless, disemboweled goat carcass. Rules vary widely, but generally once competitors get hold of the carcass, they have to drag it to the goal while being ferociously battered by whips, fists, and whatever else the competition has to offer.
To the victor go the spoils, which, depending on the circumstances, can range from a huge sum of money, to a plot of land or a cache of AK-47s.
Buzkashi Boys is an intense, gritty film made in Afghanistan about two street children. After numerous international awards, the movie is now eligible to be nominated for an Academy Award. ITN's Emma Murphy reports.
It may seem counterintuitive that anything so brutal could be the inspiration for a heartwarming film and the foundation for an American-Afghan partnership. But when you peel back the layers here, you may see that the sport is a lot like its home: battle-ridden, yet full of heart.
This is what moved American filmmaker Sam French to direct “Buzkashi Boys,” an award-winning tale which is now getting Oscar buzz.
‘Not just bombs, bullets and burkas’
French says he chased a girl to Kabul four years ago, but wound up falling deeply in love with a nation instead.
The USC film school graduate had no job lined up here, little knowledge of the country or culture and expected to be holed up in an apartment during his stay. He was stunned by the warmth and hospitality of the Afghan people.
“I immediately saw that there was a disconnect between what we see in the news media and what I see every day. It’s not just bombs and bullets and burkas here,” French told NBC News during a recent interview in Kabul.
He set out to change Western perceptions through film-making and decided to center his first project around the story of two young boys. One is a street beggar dreaming of a better life, the other, a young boy daring to walk beyond his blacksmith father’s footsteps.
French was particularly inspired by the children he met here, because just like their American counterparts who dream of growing up to basketball or football stars, they hope to become national buzkashi stars.
“We wanted to tell a story about two kids who have larger than life dreams. And show that even here, in a country wracked by war, the hope of a better life connects us all,” said French. “There are people here doing things and dreaming of things just like everyone else in the world.”
The making of the film Buzkashi Boys was a two-year labor of love, shot entirely on location in Kabul with a mixed Western and Afghan crew. French co-founded a non-profit NGO called the Afghan Film Project in 2010 to help train Afghan filmmakers and foster the struggling film industry here.