Hot Docs 2012: ‘Buzkashi!’ is almost as unscrupulous as its antagonist

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Buzkashi!

Directed by Najeeb Mirza

Canada, 2012

For centuries, shepherds in Central Asia have been driving their flock to greener pastures under the constant threat of attacking wolves. To protect their herd, men on horseback would chase the wolves, and pick them right off the ground. Over time, this practice evolved into a sport, where the object of the game is to capture a goat carcass and carry it across a goal line.  A catholic mix of polo, rugby and horseback Quidditch, the sport, and Najeeb Mirza’s documentary, is called Buzkashi!.

To profile this arcane sport, we are introduced to two of its most prolific players; Tajikistani rivals Azam and Khurshed. As we follow their lives, we come to learn about the country’s history and culture, which gives us a greater appreciation for their love, and disenchantment, for the game.

Azam is very much the traditional player. Individually, he has become one of the most celebrated Buzkashi players in the country, using his winnings to maintain his modest lifestyle as a shepherd (which consists of two wives, 10 children, and hundreds of sheep).  For him, the game is about tradition, honour, and pride.

Khurshed, on the other hand, is a member of Tajikistan’s nouveau riche. In what’s called a Buzkashi “mafia”, Khurshed uses his means to assemble a team, whose sole purpose is to help him win. Along with pride, Khurshed plays, and uses his winnings, for fame, ego and status.

To put it simply, Azam is Rocky Balboa, while Khurshed is Apollo Creed. Their rivalry represents the clash between two different social echelons – the rich versus the poor, the modern versus the traditional. The rivalry coalesces into the Buzkashi games, where the outcome of their individual fates, as well as the direction of the burgeoning sport and country, is at stake.

But this generalization, which the film itself subtly alludes to, can be problematic because of the film’s excluding focus. As well fleshed out as Azam is, a similarly detailed account of Khurshed’s life is noticeably absent.

Whereas Azam is featured in deeply affecting and personal revelatory monologues, Khurshed is not given the same treatment. We do not spend a lot of time with him, but in the few instances we do, he is portrayed as a materialistic, pecuniary magnate.

We never find out what he does for a living, whether or not he has a family, or any intimate characteristic in general. Furthermore, he never gets to defend himself against accusations of corrupting the tradition in the sport (or at least, we never see it). Rather than letting the audience decide between right and wrong, the film showcases an obvious prerogative.

This leads to a documentary that feels distorted; as if Mirza portrayed Khurshed in a negative light for the sole purpose of creating a heel to counteract the hero in Azam, creating more drama and tension in the film.

However, the parts that do work, work incredibly well – the most impressive of them being the film’s cinematography.

When we see the actual sport, we do so from an immediate, contiguous perspective. The camera is often placed in the heart of the action, giving the viewer an up close examination of the sport’s intricacies. We are not so much immersed as we are surrounded by the action.  As horses clash and the riders compete, we are drawn into the game as much as they are, making for an unexpectedly adventurous affair.

Almost as impressive, and as an achievement of Mirza, is the film’s ability to assimilate one into the country’s tradition, customs and heritage. In particular, the camera never shies away from the invidious treatment of animals, which will culturally shock the sensibilities of Western audiences. By doing so, Mirza allows the audience to connect to the story, and its players, on a more concrete level.

But for all the films technical feats, Buzkashi!’s raison d’être can be confounding, because as a film about the sport, it excels, in large part to its immersive camerawork. But as a social commentary about the country and the politics behind the sport, which are embodied in the two lead players, the focus is slanted and skewed, providing the viewer with an edifying, but unenlightening, experience.

– Justin Li

Visit the official website for the Hot Docs Film Festival

2 Comments
  1. Najeeb Mirza says

    Thanks for the article about our film, Justin. You are correct that the film spends much more time on the protagonist Azam than any other character, but in your article you fail to consider why that might be so. The reality is that neither of the other two characters wished us to show anything more personal about their lives than what’s in the film. There is nothing devious or unscrupulous about respecting their wishes. Regards, Najeeb

    1. Justin Li says

      Hey Najeeb,

      As reviewers, it’s our curse to not know exactly what goes on behind the scenes. Regardless, this doesn’t change my persception of the film. Whether or not the lack of balance was intentional (which you’ve mentioned is unintentional), there nevertheless was an inbalance. I respect your dedication to the will of your subjects, which all documentarians should, but the film itself can feel skewed. Like I said, reviewers seldomly know what happens off camera, so all we do is analyze what’s on screen. ‘Unscrupulous’ may not be the approriate term, in retrospect, but it generalizes how I felt. Thanks for you comment,

      Justin

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