Dreams on Screen: Behind the Scenes of Oscar Nominated Film, Buzkashi Boys

Buzkashi Boys is a film about two young boys who share a dream of becoming Buzkashi players. We had the opportunity to sit down with Sam French and talk to him about the making of the film, his process, and the beauty he found in all of it.

Dreams on Screen: Behind the Scenes of Oscar Nominated Film, Buzkashi Boys
The film's stars, Fawad Mohammadi and Jawanmard Paiz, on the set of Buzkashi Boys.

Sam French is the director, writer, and creative director behind Buzkashi Boys, which was nominated for "Best Live Action Short Film" at the 85th Academy Awards. We had the opportunity to get a behind the scenes look at the process of making such an impressive film.

Thanks a bunch for carving out time to talk to us Sam. I guess the best place to start is the beginning. Tell us a bit about this project. How exactly did all this come to be? What was the impetus for Buzkashi Boys?

“You know, one thing I’ve learned is there’s no one clear path to becoming a director or creating content. Everyone has a different story. Mine starts with Burning Man. I was fresh out of the graduate program at USC, and was trying to become a narrative film director. I met this British diplomat and fell in love, but discovered she was going to Afghanistan. So in 2008 I decided to pack everything up and visit her. I would say that’s when my whole love affair with Afghanistan started – the people, the culture, just everything about it is so beautiful. Despite being traumatized by years of war there is this beautiful spirit that’s infused with the art, literature, and poetry – nothing like what was depicted on the news. I had this stirring in my soul to capture as much as I could while I was out there.”

Darul Amen Palace, which was severely damaged during the civil war in the 1990s. The palace has since been renovated and restored as of 2020.

“This led me to do a lot of work for the UN, NGOs, aid organizations, things like that. What made the work so interesting was that I was able to tell human stories about people living and working and trying to make a better life for themselves. Through it all though I never gave up on my narrative dream. In 2009 a friend of mine (Martin Roe) came to visit and that’s when we sat down to write this coming-of-age story that we later called Buzkashi Boys.”

To give a bit of context, Buzkashi is the national sport of Afghanistan in which players must fight for possession of a goat carcass and attempt to score in the opposing goal. The game has been around for centuries. “It’s like how some kids in America dream of becoming NBA stars – kids in Afghanistan dream of becoming Buzkashi boys.”

A chapandaz wrestles with their horse in preparation for a Buzkashi match.

So what was the process of making this film like?

“When you’re filming a narrative film like Buzkashi Boys, you have a 45 person crew – it’s a lot. We had to do a lot of work and prep to make sure we did it safely and in collaboration with local communities. So we started this non-profit called the Afghan Film Project, which taught Afghan filmmakers how to make movies. We would bring over western filmmakers and our Afghan trainees would shadow them on set. The behind-the-scenes communication and collaboration was really special, which I feel translates onto the screen.”

Sam highlights the tight bond between crews during the making of the film.

“I have to call out my producer Ariel Nasr here – this film would not have happened without him. He is an incredible human being and a true creative producer. He really pushed this process, from interfacing with the Afghanistan government to this entire non-profit, so I gotta give him credit for making a lot of this possible.”

Were there any memorable moments or unique challenges that stand out to you?

“So this was a very hard film to make, even with all the preparation and collaboration. It’s not easy to shoot in Afghanistan, in a warzone. One of the stories that might illuminate that: We made a film about kids and horses, and these Buzkashi riders, known as chapandaz, are sponsored by pretty powerful people in Afghanistan. We were allowed to film on the vice president’s field as part of the shoot. We woke up that day and it was the biggest snowstorm I had ever seen in Afghanistan. We planned on a two day shoot, and we had to pretty much get everything we needed in a day. The plan was for me to get out there and direct the scene, so the vice president handed me a blow horn. I’d direct from there, asking the chapandaz to do certain things to get the shots I was looking for. They nodded at me and of course once the game started they just started playing. I couldn’t stop them – but we rewrote the scene on the fly which allowed us to focus on the boys. We managed to cut a really interesting scene together.”

Chapandaz take to the field during an intense snowstorm.

You know, even watching the film it seemed you were able to pull off something very organic and real with that moment. It’s interesting because it shows that in filmmaking you can have this whole plan that falls apart but still capture something amazing.

“Yeah, exactly. And that happens on most film productions - like the bus graveyard we were planning on filming in. We found out they were planning on towing that away and scrapping it. We asked them to hold tight for a day while we got the shots, and sure enough after we got all the shots we needed the next day it was gone. Or even the old destroyed palace, you know, getting in there and the safety concerns associated with it – we rigged up these safety harnesses for the kids and painted them out in post. All of these things, compounded with filming in a warzone, was an interesting experience.”

You know Sam, this project seems more than just an “Oscar worthy film” – it shows the merit of filmmaking - that maybe it’s more than just entertainment.

“Absolutely, I really believe that. You’re telling the stories of human beings, and films are an engine of empathy. And so, the thing I like most about it is not seeing my name on the screen or seeing the film in a theater, it’s communicating with people and hearing their stories and really listening. And hopefully having the privilege of hearing a story that can be told on the screen. It’s really about the process, which is the best part of it. If you’re not doing it for the process, then it’s not gonna be sustainable.”

Sam, Fawad, and Jawanmard marvel at the interior of Darul Amen Palace.

“That’s what we wanted from the beginning, to make something that we (the crew and the entire Afghan community) could be proud of. It wasn’t just my film, it was our film if I may say that. What made going to the Oscars so special wasn’t the accolades, it was giving this experience to these two wonderful young men that starred in this film. That’s still one of the proudest moments of my life.”

Sam, Fawad, Jawanmard, and the film’s producer, Ariel Nasr, on the red carpet.

Absolutely. We’re almost out of time - but if you could leave any aspiring filmmakers with a bit of advice, what would it be?

“I would say the most important thing for a filmmaker to do is find out what you really connect with on a human level in the stories you’re trying to tell. You’re not asking permission from anyone else if they like the stories you’re trying to tell, you’re asking if you like them. And if you do, then go out and tell it. That’s the thing I learned the most – I used to hate the pitching process, but what I’ve learned is the pitching process starts with you. It starts with pitching yourself on an idea. And if you pitch yourself on an idea you have to know you must love it enough to have the persistence to see it through till the end. That’s the thing – the skill, the money, that’ll come…but the passion, the love for the story, that must be there.”

The crew of Buzkashi Boys pile in for a group photo.

You can check out Sam’s Oscar nominated film, Buzkashi Boys, on his Glimmer profile.