Afghan boys from nominated film to walk red carpet

KABUL, Afghanistan – Fawad Mohammadi has spent half his life peddling maps and dictionaries to foreigners on a street of trinket shops in Kabul. Now the 14-year-old Afghan boy with bright green eyes is getting ready for a trip down the red carpet at the Oscars.

It will also be his first time out of the country and his first time on a plane.

Mohammadi was plucked from the dingy streets of the Afghan capital to be one of the main stars of “Buzkashi Boys,” a coming-of-age movie filmed entirely in a war zone and nominated in the Best Live Action Short Film category.

The movie is about two penniless young boys – a street urchin and a blacksmith’s son – who are best friends and dream of becoming professional players of buzkashi, a particularly rough and dangerous game that somewhat resembles polo: Horseback riders wrangle to get a headless goat carcass into a circular goal at one end of the field.

It’s also part of an American director’s effort to help revive a film industry devastated by decades of civil war and by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist movement that banned entertainment and burned films and theaters during its five years in power.

Sam French, a Philadelphia native who has lived in Afghanistan for about five years, said his 28-minute movie was initially conceived as a way of training local film industry workers – the first installment in his nonprofit Afghan Film Project.

“We never dreamed of having the film come this far and get an Oscar nomination,” French, 36, said in a telephone interview from Los Angeles, where he is preparing for the Feb. 24 Academy Awards and raising money to fly the two young co-stars in for the ceremony.

The two boys playing the main characters – Mohammadi and Jawanmard Paiz – can barely contain their excitement about going to the Oscars.

“It will be a great honor for me and for Afghanistan to meet the world’s most famous actors,” said Mohammadi, whose real-life dream is to become a pilot. He’s also hoping to go see the cockpit during the flight.

The farthest Mohammadi has ever traveled was to the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif when he was younger.

Mohammadi’s father died a few years ago, leaving him with his mother, five brothers and a sister. He started selling chewing gum when he was about 7 years old and soon expanded his trade to maps and dictionaries.

He learned to speak English hustling foreigners on Chicken Street, the main tourist area in Kabul with shops selling multicolor rugs, lapis bowls and other crafts and souvenirs, and gained a reputation for being polite, helpful and trustworthy. He was even able to enroll in a private school, thanks to the generosity of some other foreigners unrelated to the film project.