As I wrap up my coverage of this year's crop of live-action nominees, I've somehow managed to save the best for last—as did my colleague Ben Sachs, apparently. At an even 30 minutes, Buzkashi Boys is the longest of the bunch (the others averaged out to around 20 minutes apiece), but director Sam French doesn't let a second go to waste, displaying a strong command of form and structure.
The film tells the story of two young Afghan boys from different walks of life: Ahmad (Jawanmard Paiz) is a wily, homeless orphan who scrapes by performing magic tricks for the townspeople, while Rafi (Fawad Mohammadi) is the son of a local blacksmith destined to follow in his father's footsteps. The one thing the boys have in common is their love for buzkashi, the Afghan national sport that's similar to polo in that it's played on horseback, but unlike polo in that rather than with a ball, the game is played with a dead goat.
Buzkashi Boys is exceptional in its depiction of fate versus choice. Ahmad dreams of one day overcoming his status as a street urchin and becoming the greatest off all buzkashi payers. Rafi shares similar aspirations, but fears his future as the successor to his father is unavoidable. Both boys recognize desirable traits in one another—Ahmad yearns for the sense of family Rafi has, while Rafi would prefer to have the freedom to carve his own path. The film dedicates the bulk of its dramatic action to this conflict, illuminating emotional themes of destiny and ambition without resorting to low-grade sentimentalism.
With a name like Sam French, the director—you may have deduced—is not a native of Afghanistan. He's originally from Philadelphia, but moved to the country in 2008 "in pursuit of a beautiful woman," according to his online bio. Having spent ample time there, French has clearly come to respect the nuances of the culture. Shooting on location in Kabul, he pays close attention to the unique nature of the setting, giving the film a distinct air of authenticity. The buzkashi sequences in particular are shot with awed admiration, the camera focused and in step with the movement, but stationed at a distance wide enough to encompass the entirety of the action and safe enough as to not get trampled underfoot. The rest of the film is shot with similar reverence, a tasteful choice both stylistically and culturally.