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Fawad Mohammadi ('Buzkashi Boys') takes a long trip to the Oscars

The 14-year-old star of the nominated live-action short will take a vacation from the Kabul street where he sells maps to attend the Academy Awards.

February 20, 2013|By Alexandra Zavis, Los Angeles Times
  • Fawad Mohammadi 14, adjusts a pasted map displaced to sell on Chicken Street, the main tourist area in Kabul, Afghanistan. Fawad is getting ready for his first airplane ride and a trip down the red carpet at the Oscars.
Fawad Mohammadi 14, adjusts a pasted map displaced to sell on Chicken Street,… (Musadeq Sadeq, Associated…)

KABUL, Afghanistan — On a recent afternoon here in the Afghan capital, 14-year-old Fawad Mohammadi stood shivering on a muddy corner, scanning the street for customers who might buy one of his maps. But his thoughts were elsewhere: the Oscars.

On Sunday, the Afghan teen will be walking down the red carpet at the Academy Awards.

He cried when he heard the news. "I was so happy," he said, breaking into a wide grin.

Fawad is one of the child stars of "Buzkashi Boys," which is nominated in the live-action short category. Filmed entirely in Kabul by American director Sam French, the movie is about two best friends, a blacksmith's son and a street urchin, who dream of becoming star players of the national sport, buzkashi. The game has been called a wild version of polo, in which horsemen vie for a goat's carcass.

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Fawad, a slim boy with a quiet maturity, had never seen a buzkashi match before filming began. But in other ways, the tale reflects his life growing up in one of the world's most war-torn countries.

Like the boys in the film, Fawad started working at a young age, peddling maps, dictionaries and chewing gum on Chicken Street, where foreigners go to buy hand-woven carpets, lapis jewelry and other souvenirs. And like them, he has big dreams. He wants to be a pilot. (Although now that he has tried acting, he said he'd enjoy making another film.)

In a casting twist, Fawad doesn't play the street child in the movie. The role of Ahmad went to Jawanmard Paiz, the 15-year-old son of a well-known Afghan filmmaker.

Jawanmard's life has been far removed from the grimy streets of Kabul — although his performance was so convincing that several times during filming he was offered money by passersby who didn't notice the cameras. The teen said he has been making movies since he was 21/2 and has even attended the Cannes Film Festival.

But for the role of Rafi, the blacksmith's son, French said he kept coming back to the boy who sold him a map on Chicken Street: Fawad.

"He just has the biggest heart of anyone I know, and he has these huge green eyes," he said. "He was the character we had written."

Despite their different backgrounds, the boys said they became friends on set. Jawanmard offered Fawad acting tips and helped him overcome his fear of doing television interviews.

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"I have to say that Fawad's performance was great, as it was his first experience working in a movie," Jawanmard said.

Fawad shared stories about working to help support his mother, five brothers and a sister. His father died of an illness several years ago.

French, 36, who has directed numerous short narrative films as well as documentaries, music videos and commercials, said he made "Buzkashi Boys" because he wanted to show another side of Afghanistan than the one portrayed in news reports.

A Philadelphia native, he moved to Kabul in 2008, in pursuit of a woman who was starting a job at the British Embassy. "I thought I'd be dodging bullets every time I stepped out my front door," he said.

Instead, he said, he found a culturally rich country full of untold stories.

He formed the nonprofit Afghan Film Project to help revive a fledgling local movie industry, ravaged by three decades of war and by the Taliban, which torched film reels, regarding most forms of entertainment as un-Islamic. "Buzkashi Boys," which was filmed over 16 days in the winter of 2011 and clocks in at just under 30 minutes, was a product of that initiative.

French wrote the screenplay with Martin Roe of the Los Angeles-based production company Dirty Robber, a fellow graduate of the USC film school. Aspiring Afghan filmmakers were paired with international mentors for the project, which cost more than $200,000 to complete.

Filming in a war zone had its challenges, French said. For example, a day after filming in a market, a rocket landed there. Special precautions were necessary. "We got police protection," he said. "We didn't shoot more than one or two days in a location."

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Pre-production for the film took a year while Ariel Nasr, the film's Afghan-Canadian producer, worked through layers of bureaucracy to obtain the necessary permissions.

Finding their lead actors was a challenge. "You can't put an ad in Backstage West and just do auditions," French said. "We went around to all these children's shelters and tried to find kids the right age who could possibly act in this film. But first you have to explain to them what a film is and what auditions are."

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