TORONTO – When Afghan-Canadian Ariel Nasr attends the Oscars as a nominee in the best live-action short category he’ll be looking out for a couple of teenagers a long way from home.
Tagging along with Nasr and his filmmaking partner Sam French will be the stars of the Afghanistan-shot “Buzkashi Boys,” Fawad Mohammadi and Jawanmard Paiz, both 14.
The trip will cap off an unbelievable journey for Mohammadi in particular, who was selling maps as a street vendor in Kabul to help feed his family when he was cast for the short film. His co-star Paiz had already done some film work and was raised by a family of filmmakers, but “Buzkashi Boys” was Mohammadi’s first attempt at acting and he was thrilled when he learned the experience would take him to Los Angeles, says Nasr, who encountered the charismatic boy among the souvenir vendors on Kabul’s Chicken Street.
“He had a kind of unbreakable spirit, he had a real sense of joy, especially when he was performing, a real sense of joy in what he was doing,” says Nasr, who is based in Montreal.
“He’s a kid of exceptional maturity and we think he’ll have a great time…. He wants to meet Sylvester Stallone, he loves ‘Rambo III.’”
Shooting the film was a bit of a role reversal for Mohammadi and Paiz. Paiz plays an impoverished street vendor in the film, while Mohammadi’s character, a hard-working son of a blacksmith, is somewhat better off financially. Mohammadi’s character is destined to become a blacksmith like his father but dreams of playing buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport.
The short film evolved out of the Afghan Film Project, a non-profit organization that aims to boost the movie industry in Afghanistan by providing experience and training to aspiring filmmakers in the country.
A North American crew flew into Kabul to make “Buzkashi Boys” and provided mentoring to local talent working on the film.
“It was really an international collaboration and we got a lot of help and support and love and shared vision from the film community in Kabul,” says Nasr.
He worked as a producer for “Buzkashi Boys,” raising financing, helping with casting, choosing locations, working out agreements with government officials and ensuring that filming could be done safely.
“We had to shoot in downtown Kabul in sometimes uncontrolled shooting situations,” says Nasr, who had previously directed the National Film Board of Canada documentaries “Good Morning Kandahar” and “The Boxing Girls of Kabul” in the country.
“We knew to keep our profile low…. We didn’t have trailers with stars on the sides of them parked in downtown Kabul, we didn’t have massive lighting setups that people could see from far off, we were very careful and strategic about how we placed our visibility.”
While a contingent of Afghan national police made the crew feel relatively safe during production there were some scary close calls.
“There was a rocket attack close to where we had been shooting — a few days after we left the location — that made people nervous. There was a suicide bombing in the city, in a neighbourhood that was not too far away from where we were operating, so these things definitely made people nervous. But in the end our whole crew pulled together, everyone knew what they had signed up for,” says Nasr.
“There’s always an element of unpredictability in a place like that but we were making the best possible decisions to keep people safe.”
As Oscar night approaches (the show is on Feb. 24), Nasr can’t wait to meet up again with the stars of “Buzkashi Boys.” Mohammadi, who dreams of becoming a pilot, is incredibly excited about the trip since it means he’ll get to fly for the first time.
“He’s going to fly all the way from Kabul to L.A. — that’s one of the longer flights you can do in the world, that’s a long way, it’s going to be on several planes,” says Nasr.
“And we’re hoping he’ll be able to visit the cockpit in one of those planes.”