Najeeb Mirza on Tajikistan, Goat Carcasses, and Moderniziation

OpenCanada talks to the director of the documentary Buzkashi!

By: /
4 May, 2012
By: OpenCanada Staff

Canadians like watching men on skates chase pucks. Tajiks like watching men on horseback chase goat carcasses.  Open Canada talked to Najeeb Mirza, the director of Buzkashi! about what the sport tells us about Central Asia and how CIDA brought him to filmmaking.

I probably would never have heard of buzkashi had it not been for Buzkashi!

For me, film is a really powerful tool to connect people across national, linguistic, ethnic, and political differences. Telling stories that resonate irrespective of the place or context you are in brings out what is common among people.

In addition, a lot of international stuff is seen as heavy – “This many people have died,” or, “This government has fallen.” As a filmmaker, one of my objectives is to understand the world from a perspective that is not heavy, but such that you learn about others without even knowing that you are learning.

It’s true that most Canadians don’t learn about Tajiks on a daily basis. How did you end up in Tajikistan?

I worked for the Canadian International Development Agency for many years. I was posted to Kazakhstan in the year 2000, and covered the five countries of Central Asia. It’s an extraordinary area that I travelled extensively for work. The culture is so rich because it is an intersection between East and West in so many ways. Central Asia, for those who know it, is recognized as being part of the “Silk Road.” We talk about the start and end point of the Silk Road, but hardly ever what’s in between.

Working in development, I didn’t go to tourist areas, and I came across some extraordinary stories. I love taking photographs, but I felt they didn’t convey enough. You can’t hear the laughter of a person. You can’t see the way they walk, or the other things that make people people. The beginning of filmmaking was to grab the camera and to start telling people’s stories there. Buzkashi!, which is shot in Tajikistan, is my fourth film. The first was in Kyrgyzstan, the second was in Tajikistan, the third I shot in Afghanistan, and I’m back now in Tajikistan.

You could have just made a movie  about Tajikistan, but you chose to make one about this crazy sport.

Buzkashi comes from the culture of herding, which Central Asia is very well-known for. Herders would frequently be attacked by wolves, or their herds would be attacked by wolves. To save their flocks, the horsemen would chase the wolves and, in full-stride, reach down and grab the wolves off the ground. In doing so, they saved their herds, but [eventually] it evolved into a game, with them using a goat carcass instead of a wolf to play.

That sounds a little safer. 

Part of the reason Genghis Khan was so successful in his quest moving westward is that there was a horseman that really gave him the upper hand. But that skill evolved into Buzkashi and the intent of the Buzkashi game was to demonstrate each player as an individual, to show their strength, to show their integrity, and to show their honour on the sports field – which is now being challenged.

Challenged by whom?

I think the tensions that are taking place in Central Asia are similar to the tensions taking place around the world: modernization versus tradition. What are the traditions you have to leave behind in the process of modernization? What’s happening on the field in Buzkashi is actually a microcosm of what’s happening in society much more broadly.

Tajikistan still seems early in the process of modernization.

The fall of the Soviet Union is really what started this in a big way. The civil wars that resulted from that had a huge impact on the structure of society. Also, a lot of narcotics from Afghanistan pass through Tajikistan, and that had an impact on the structure of power.

What was originally considered, during the Soviet time, as state land is pretty well privately owned now. The country is suffering tremendous poverty, by and large. Earlier on in this last decade, 85 per cent of the population was under the poverty line, and that may have [now improved] to maybe 80 per cent.

There is a concern that what’s happening in the country north of Tajikistan – the revolution that took place in Kyrgyzstan – might happen in Tajikistan as well.

So how does this all relate to a game played with a goat carcass?

Buzkashi is played in other countries as a team sport. You have five players on each side, and you’ve got defined goals. And it’s all right. It’s not that interesting.

When I went to Tajikistan, I was exposed to the Tajik version of the game, which is 200 horses and every man for himself, and [it is] total chaos – one horse on top of the other. Set in the context of snow-covered mountains in the background … cinematically, it just captured my eye.

But then I got deeper into the characters and trying to understand who they were and how they were living. Azam, our main character, is a rural herder whose forefathers were herders, and his interest has continued that herding. He is a traditionalist because he lives by the seasons, and that influences his traditions. And in the game of Buzkashi, he’s also a traditionalist in the sense that he plays by himself. He doesn’t require help – he doesn’t want help. And that’s [an expression of the] honour and integrity that define him.

Khurshed, who is a city dweller, is very wealthy, and he considers himself to be a modernizer who wants to take this game and turn it into a team sport, much like hockey or the way it is played in many other countries in the region. But he also wants to take this to become an Olympic sport. He wants to see this played internationally, and he’s prepared to give up the real goat for a rubber goat to bring it to the Olympics. So he’s a man of vision. He’s a man who’s forward-thinking and thinks that is the answer to make this a much more prolific modernized sport.

And neither [view is] necessarily wrong – we have that tension everywhere in every country.

Photo courtesy of

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