Canada, Finland, France, NEWS, Pakistan, Released docs, USA — 04/24/2012 11:46 AM

“It’s a crazy, visual sport” (The Ottawa Citizen)

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This ancient game involves players competing to control a headless goat. An Ottawa filmmaker has captured the action.

Ottawa-area filmmaker Najeeb Mirza first saw the sport of buzkashi in Tajikistan in 2004. And he was hooked.



The age-old Central Asian game involves men on horseback competing for control of the headless body of a goat. And it makes playoff hockey look gentle — even this year. Mirza, a bureaucrat who was posted to the region, was entranced.

“It’s a crazy, visual sport, so it’s very captivating from a cinematic point of view.”

While Mirza was born in Pakistan, he grew up in Edmonton and had never seen anything like buzkashi, which means goat-grabbing in the Dari language which is widely spoken in the region, including Afghanistan, where the rough-and-tumble event is the national sport.

The game is the subject of Mirza’s fourth documentary, Buzkashi!, which premieres at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival in Toronto on April 29. In most parts of Central Asia, buzkashi is played with two teams, four men aside. But in Tajikistan, where the film is set, 200 participants play for themselves.

Mirza says the film should appeal to anyone interested in extreme sports and different cultures.

“It’s going to be something that some people have never seen before … set in a country or a region that people have never heard of before.”

Despite the exotic subject, he said Canadians will be able to relate to the characters. “You want to tell a really good story that resonates with people … You’re trying to get a universal human story and we can find that in the human stories behind the sport. ”

Mirza said the nature of the sport made filming extremely difficult. When the horses were at a distance they were hard to see, but if he got too close the animals were dangerous. He says he tried to find creative ways to capture all angles.

“We used a lot of different cameras, overhead cameras, helmet cameras, cameras attached to the goalposts and cameras attached to the ground itself, just to give different perspectives on exactly what’s going on.”

But there were close calls.

“One of the guys (filming), on a muddy day, got too close to the horses. One turned and started running towards him. He got stuck in the mud and couldn’t get out and the horse ran over him. At one point, he heard screaming and looked up and right next to him was a goat, which is what the horses were going for,” said Mirza.

Luckily, the cameraman wasn’t injured.

Mirza, 52, who lives in Aylmer with his wife, has taken an unusual route to filmmaking. At the University of Guelph, he completed a double major in economics and fine arts and then picked up a Master’s degree in international rural development planning from the University of Alberta in Edmonton. That led to a career as senior project officer for Central Asia with the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). After being posted to the Canadian Embassy in Kazakhstan in 2000 he became fascinated with the culture and landscapes of Central Asia and started photographing the region. From photography, it was a short leap to developing an interest in video and film and, literally, just like that, he says, he picked up a camera and started shooting.

“It was such an extraordinary area that I got inspired to start filming there and that was, in essence, the beginning of my filming career.”

He made his first film in 2004. “The shooting part has been pretty easy. The story part is where the learning part has happened. Every film has taught me more and more how to tell a story more than how to shoot.”

Mirza said he’s often been in over his head but despite that, the hands-on experience has been a great way to learn. His first film, Herders’ Calling, is an award-winning short film that followed herders in the Krygyz Republic and offered a glimpse inside a traditional Central-Asian lifestyle. His second film, Falak: Song of the Soul, made in 2005, profiles three Tajik musicians and explores Falak music while touching on paradoxes of different human emotions. In 2008 he made the documentary The Sweetest Embrace: Return to Afghanistan, which he filmed in Afghanistan over a six-week period. The documentary, which aired on the Ariana Television Network, is about two Afghans who return home after a 16-year exile.

Mirza balances an “intense” schedule between filming and his career at CIDA, but says with the upcoming federal government layoffs it’s a good time to question his priorities. He has “tons” of ideas for future films and is in the early stages of creating a dramatic film called Johnny Star. He is also working on an Internet project to connect youth around the world. He hopes to have that done in a year.

Buzkashi!, at 82 minutes, is his longest project. It will be shown three times at the Hot Docs Festival, which runs April 26 — May 6.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

SOURCE: (23/04/2012)

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