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Beyond the bombs: Afghanistan's toughest sport also source of hope

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.

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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.”

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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.

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It’s no small feat to make a movie in a war zone – the security and logistical challenges are extreme.  But French and his team were determined to film exclusively here so that they could provide job training to emerging local film makers. (Click here to see an interview with French discussing the film).

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Kabul’s red carpet
Last week, the film premiered at an arts festival here in Kabul with the fanfare of a Hollywood opening, complete with a red carpet. It was a “smashing success,” French said, smiling wide as he remembered the 500-person line at the door. “They don’t see that often in Kabul.” 

Shafiq Ullah, a 22-year-old Kabul native who is currently unemployed, explained how he can relate to the plotline.

Bazuki Muhammad / Reuters, file

A buzkashi player scores during a training game in Kabul. The Afghan national sport, outlawed during the Taliban regime, originated centuries ago in Central Asia

“It is hard for many children here. I have seen a lot of people who feel bound to go for their father’s occupation or beg on the street. Sometimes they don’t get the life they have dreamed of, but they do dream,” he told NBC News. 

Still, Ullah remains optimistic. “The children need to keep dreaming, go for it, try for it, strive for it. People here have a lot of potential, but need the opportunity to achieve. I have an education in mechanical engineering. I am hoping for the best. But you have to save yourself; you have to do it yourself.” 

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Another Kabul resident, Azim Fakkhri, attended the premiere with his cousin.

“I loved it. I am so proud. Buzkashi is a tradition. My father’s father’s father played it. I love to show the people around the world that Afghanistan is not only war,” he said.

Fakkhri, a 24-year-old IT specialist, explained how he was like the boys in the film. “When I was a little boy, I was always dreaming of working on a computer. My dreams are coming true, day by day. Now, I have a son. As a father, I want my son to move on with the world, complete an education and work, try to be something for his country, to be a big man. Anything is possible. I tell him, if you go for it and you try."

‘Wildest Dreams’
Critical acclaim for the film has been abundant. The film has already won a string of awards on the American film festival circuit, and won “Best International Short” at London’s Raindance Film Festival this week.

This means Buzkashi Boys is now qualified to be nominated for the Academy Awards, which French says is a culmination of his “wildest dreams.” 

The two boys who starred in the film have dreams their own dream beyond Buzkashi Boys. Fawad Mohammadi, the actor who plays “Ahmad,” is a teenager who grew up begging in the streets; now he wants to be an airline pilot. His young co-star, Jawanmard Paiz wants to be president someday.

“I hope that they realize their dreams,” said French, who also has his own wish for them. If they do wind up clinching an Oscar nomination, he’ll bring the boys to America so that they can walk the red carpet together. “That’s my dream,” he said. 

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