HOT DOCS 2012 – Buzkashi! Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

Hot Docs 2012 (Toronto)


Directed by Najeeb Mirza

Tickets are still available for May 6, 9:00pm: CLICK HERE

Horses like ants rush down a Tajik mountain, parched like desert, while a horse and its rider peacefully stand on a dark boundary line slashing the steep slope. That’s the best I can do in describing Buzkashi’s opening shot, defying dimension, making my ask how the movie got this image and why no one famous has ever painted this. But the cameras’ clarity does it justice, and we can thank Najeeb Mirza who directed and shot the movie.

There are other beautiful shots of the titular buzkashi matches, with horses grinding each other’s heads which succinctly encapsulates Cormac McCarthy’s prose. It also shows Azam, a stocky veteran of a bozkashi champion and his extended family living a pastoral existence, playing around with the younger members of their flock of sheep and goats. There’s also like those involving the country’s colourful cuisine, either prepared by Azam’s two wives or by vendors during Nawroz or New Year festivities, all of these capturing fragments of a culture still rooted in the land.

Eventually I did become suspicious of how the movie was going to go after we’re done with the scenery. Intertitles in the movie’s first few minutes explain buzkashi as a way for Central Asian shepherds centuries ago to man up and protect their goats, evolving into a sport that carries a carcass of a headless goat to an arbitrary goal line. I say ‘Central Asian’ because when Azam and the other champions/prospective players discuss the game, they mention Afghanistan and Uzbekistan with their home in Tajikistan, hinting on the tradition shared by the region.

A movie about buzkashi can potentially cover a range of topics that the sport inevitably touches on. It doesn’t even explain how the game really works! But for better or for worse, it chooses to focus on Azam, figuring out his place in the sport, belonging to a triumvirate of champions, all introduced in the movie’s first half. Khurshed is rich and is trying to modernize the sport by introducing teams that inadvertently intimidate the other men playing as individuals. One of those horsemen is young Askar, whose budding talent might be squashed by Kurshed’s influence. We’re watching the three making pronouncements about the game, that winning buzkashi’s prizes – including food, animals and household appliances – is not because of material wealth but  for honour.

My assessment of them does seem reductive, since these men are deeply linked not just to each other, whom they meet once a season, but to their unconventional family structures. Azam has two wives and his firstborn son is more interested in books than with farm animals. Kurshed, an unmarried urbanite living in an estate in Tajikistan’s capital of Dushanbe pratices and works out with his teammates who he practically pays to be around with. Askar is the closest this movie has to a crying talking head, recounting his past and present financial troubles. Through the movie’s less than perfect storytelling and more competent camera work, it shows these men as solitary beings in a country that’s changing in a more surprising direction than we expect.

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