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SXSW First Look: An Afghan National Sports Hero Faces A Life-Or-Death Dilemma In ‘Riders On The Storm’ 

'Riders on the Storm'

EXCLUSIVE: There’s nothing genteel about Afghanistan’s national sport, called buzkashi. It’s a contest between powerfully-built men on powerful horses packed onto a field, skirmishing to score goals with an animal carcass. It’s almost rugby on hooves.

Buzkashi is the backdrop to the film Riders on the Storm, directed by Jason Motlagh and Mark Oltmanns, which is making its world premiere at the SXSW Film Festival in Documentary Feature Competition. We have your first look in the clip above. Riders tells the story of an athletic young man who excels at the sport, reaching a level of national prominence that puts him squarely in the gunsights of the resurgent Taliban. 

“Young horseman Khaiber Akbarzada quickly rises to become one of the best players of buzkashi — the ancient sport where riders battle for control of a headless goat — but soon learns that fame is both a gift and a curse,” a description of the film notes. “To avoid the same fate as his uncle, a legendary buzkashi star who was assassinated during the civil war, he goes into hiding and must ultimately make a choice that will alter the course of his life.”

Motlagh, a journalist and filmmaker, has been reporting from Afghanistan since 2006 and witnessed his first buzkashi match a number of years ago.

“Its origins aren’t entirely clear, but [it dates] roughly to the time of Genghis Khan and the Mongols,” Motlagh tells Deadline. “There’s just so much energy and intensity in buzkashi… hundreds of horses and all of this energy and competition and [we] had this idea that it had to become a film.”

The way the directors shot the film puts viewers right in the middle of the action.

“The sport itself is so frenetic. And to capture that energy, doing it on a zoom lens from far away just wouldn’t do it justice,” Oltmanns explains. “You really had to kind of get in there at a ground level… We used a stabilized camera on a gimbal so that we could ensure that everything that happens in the frame would be fluid and you’d be able to track what was going on. That was the idea from the get-go, just kind of keep it steady on the gimbal so we could really track these horses and the energy up as close as we could.”

There’s plenty of on-the-field footage in Riders on the Storm. But in essence it’s a character-driven story of Khaiber (with his older brother, also a fearsome buzkashi competitor, playing a supporting role). The filmmakers found their main character in the northern part of Afghanistan, a hotbed of buzkashi brilliance.

“We went up to Mazar-i-Sharif and as soon as we sat down with this guy, I think we both knew he just had that ‘it’ factor — young, pretty good-looking guy, from a great buzkashi tradition with a backstory,” Motlagh recalls. “His uncle Ahmed was kind of a legendary buzkashi player in his own right and he was killed during the civil war. So, there was this need to keep the family legacy going and these two brothers were kind of competing for that role and making each other better, each with their own very distinctive personalities.”

Motlagh adds, “We met with Khaiber and we sealed the deal over lamb kebabs, and we knew we were gonna come back and follow this guy.”

Motlagh and Oltmanns began filming before the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. Once the withdrawal happened the Taliban rapidly advanced on the capital.

“We didn’t want to make a sports film per se. We always wanted it to be a political film through the vehicle of the sport,” Oltmanns comments. “We thought the film would straddle the line of pre- and post- kind of American presence in Afghanistan. And it just turned out to be much, much, much, much more than that with the Taliban taking over so quickly.”

The filmmakers say they initially self-funded the project. Later, Red Bull Studios came on board with financing. Riders on the Storm is an acquisition title at SXSW, with MetFilm Sales handling negotiations. Jason Motlagh and Mark Oltmanns direct and produce; Oltmanns is the cinematographer. Executive producers are Bernadette McDaid, Rocky Collins and Oscar-nominated filmmaker Matt Ogens (Audible). Christina Stiles is the editor; sound design is by Peter Albrechtsen, with music by William Ryan Fritch.

Watch the exclusive clip of Riders of the Storm above.

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