The archetypal tale of the street kid who makes good is being lived by 14-year-old Afghan map seller Fawad Mohammadi. On Tuesday, he left the gritty streets of Kabul, boarded an airplane for the first time and landed 18 hours later (plus layovers) on another planet: Los Angeles.
Mohammadi is in Hollywood to attend the Academy Awards this Sunday for his role in the movie Buzkashi Boys, which is nominated for Best Live Action Short Film. He wept with joy when he heard the news.
The film’s American director Sam French discovered Mohammadi peddling gum and maps on Kabul’s famed “Chicken Street”, which was once part of the Hippy Trail. The youngest of seven children whose father died several years ago, Mohammadi was working on the popular tourist street to support his family.
A steady supply of tourists seeking Afghan carpets, jewelry and crafts along the well-known merchant’s street gave the young vendor ample opportunity to hone his English skills, in preparation for the fateful encounter with French, who directed and shot the film on location in Afghanistan.
The movie tells the story of two best friends – a street urchin and a blacksmith’s son who spends his nights sharpening axe heads at his father’s shop – growing up in Kabul.
The boys dream of one day competing as a chapandaz, the name given to a competitor in Afghanistan’s remarkable national sport of Buzkashi.
There is polo and then there is Buzkashi, which takes the essence of the former – riding on horseback, fiercely moving an object toward a goal – but replaces polo’s ball with … a decapitated, disemboweled goat carcass. Winners in this primal contest are awarded with money, land plots, even AK-47s. An authentic video of this testosterone-driven Central Asian pastime in action can be seen here.
Defying expectations, Mohammadi plays the blacksmith’s son, while his costar 15-year-old Jawanmard Paiz plays the street kid. Paiz has been acting since age five, has attended the Cannes Film Festival and is the son of a prominent Afghan actor. Both boys were 12 at the time of filming. The trailer can be seen here.
Of the choice to cast Mohammadi instead of Paiz in the role of the urchin, director French told the Los Angeles Times, “He just has the biggest heart of anyone I know, and he has these huge green eyes. He was the character we had written.”
Paiz had nothing but praise for his costar’s breakthrough performance. “I have to say that Fawad’s performance was great, as it was his first experience working in a movie,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
After taking a battering by the Taliban, Afghanistan’s once vibrant film scene is slowly finding its feet again under the Western-backed government of President Hamid Karzai.
“There were many logistical challenges,” French said. “We spent over a year in pre-production to ensure we had the support of the Afghan government and police protection in all the locations we filmed.”
Some of the earnings from the film, which cost U.S. $200,000 to finish, will go toward Mohammadi’s education and to his family. After the film, he said that he plans to hit the books and has no delusions of grandeur.
In Los Angeles, French explained that the stars will stay with an Afghan family to ease the culture shock a bit. But this hasn’t phased Mohammadi’s enthusiasm to explore during his brief stay in Los Angeles.
“I want to see a lot of things there… And I want to see some actors,” he told NBC.
It looks like he came to the right place.