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When you hear the term "film premiere," you are likely to think of Hollywood or New York — not Kabul. But just last week, an award-winning short film was screened in the Afghan capital, and for a good reason: The movie was shot entirely in Kabul and tells the story of two Afghan boys dreaming about their future.
There were no limos, tuxes or flashing lights at this premiere, but the hundreds of Afghan and Western viewers did get to walk down a red carpet — of course, that was after passing through the security gauntlet at the entrance of the French Cultural Center in Kabul.
Sam French, a documentarian and filmmaker who has been in Kabul since 2008, directed the film, Buzkashi Boys.
The 29-minute film is essentially a coming-of-age tale, shot over 16 days in the winter of 2011. The striking cinematography captures the bustle and bleakness of Kabul.
Rafi is the son of a poor blacksmith. He's chafing against the fate of following in his father's footsteps. His best friend, Ahmed, is a Dickensian street rogue — a common site across Kabul. Both boys share the dream of escaping poverty and the streets, and playing buzkashi — Afghanistan's national sport, which is like polo, except instead of a ball, they use the carcass of a goat.
The audience gave the film a standing ovation, though people immediately started discussing the seemingly dark ending. That's just the way the director wanted it.
"I tried to make a happy ending for the characters in this film, but it's about very poor people," French says.
So, he decided to make the ending ambiguous.
"Does the kid in the film strive for his own dreams, will he realize his own dreams?" French asks.
Either way, it's definitely not a Hollywood ending. But that's what makes the film work, says 14-year-old Fawad Mohammadi, who plays Rafi. Mohammadi was actually a street vendor himself from the time he was 5, and this was his first acting experience.
"I really like this film because it's according to Afghan culture," he says.
That was one of French's two goals when making the movie — to tell the untold stories of Afghanistan. He says his Afghan crew and actors were essential in making the dialogue and story speak to the Afghan experience. The second goal was to train the next generation of Afghan filmmakers.
"We started an NGO called the Afghan Film Project to try to foster Afghanistan's film industry and train Afghan filmmakers," French says. "Buzkashi Boys was the first project of the Afghan Film Project. We trained 12 Afghan filmmakers on the production, and these filmmakers are now going on to make their own films."
Buzkashi Boys has already earned awards from two international film festivals and now qualifies for Oscar submission.
French also hopes to be able to tour the country to show the film to the Afghan people. That's a tall order in a country where few theaters survived Taliban rule and years of war.
"My biggest dream right now is to sit in the Oscars with my two main characters," French says. "That is what I'd like, to show the world that these kids can come from Afghanistan and make it on the world stage."