KABUL, Afghanistan — On a recent afternoon here in the Afghan capital, 14-year-old Fawad Mohammadi stood shivering on a muddy corner, scanning the street for customers who might buy one of his maps. But his thoughts were elsewhere: the Oscars.
On Sunday, the Afghan teen will be walking down the red carpet at the Academy Awards.
He cried when he heard the news. "I was so happy," he said, breaking into a wide grin.
Fawad is one of the child stars of "Buzkashi Boys," which is nominated in the live-action short category. Filmed entirely in Kabul by American director Sam French, the movie is about two best friends, a blacksmith's son and a street urchin, who dream of becoming star players of the national sport, buzkashi. The game has been called a wild version of polo, in which horsemen vie for a goat's carcass.
Fawad, a slim boy with a quiet maturity, had never seen a buzkashi match before filming began. But in other ways, the tale reflects his life growing up in one of the world's most war-torn countries.
Like the boys in the film, Fawad started working at a young age, peddling maps, dictionaries and chewing gum on Chicken Street, where foreigners go to buy hand-woven carpets, lapis jewelry and other souvenirs. And like them, he has big dreams. He wants to be a pilot. (Although now that he has tried acting, he said he'd enjoy making another film.)
In a casting twist, Fawad doesn't play the street child in the movie. The role of Ahmad went to Jawanmard Paiz, the 15-year-old son of a well-known Afghan filmmaker.
Jawanmard's life has been far removed from the grimy streets of Kabul — although his performance was so convincing that several times during filming he was offered money by passersby who didn't notice the cameras. The teen said he has been making movies since he was 21/2 and has even attended the Cannes Film Festival.
But for the role of Rafi, the blacksmith's son, French said he kept coming back to the boy who sold him a map on Chicken Street: Fawad.
"He just has the biggest heart of anyone I know, and he has these huge green eyes," he said. "He was the character we had written."
Despite their different backgrounds, the boys said they became friends on set. Jawanmard offered Fawad acting tips and helped him overcome his fear of doing television interviews.
"I have to say that Fawad's performance was great, as it was his first experience working in a movie," Jawanmard said.
Fawad shared stories about working to help support his mother, five brothers and a sister. His father died of an illness several years ago.
French, 36, who has directed numerous short narrative films as well as documentaries, music videos and commercials, said he made "Buzkashi Boys" because he wanted to show another side of Afghanistan than the one portrayed in news reports.
A Philadelphia native, he moved to Kabul in 2008, in pursuit of a woman who was starting a job at the British Embassy. "I thought I'd be dodging bullets every time I stepped out my front door," he said.
Instead, he said, he found a culturally rich country full of untold stories.
He formed the nonprofit Afghan Film Project to help revive a fledgling local movie industry, ravaged by three decades of war and by the Taliban, which torched film reels, regarding most forms of entertainment as un-Islamic. "Buzkashi Boys," which was filmed over 16 days in the winter of 2011 and clocks in at just under 30 minutes, was a product of that initiative.
French wrote the screenplay with Martin Roe of the Los Angeles-based production company Dirty Robber, a fellow graduate of the USC film school. Aspiring Afghan filmmakers were paired with international mentors for the project, which cost more than $200,000 to complete.
Filming in a war zone had its challenges, French said. For example, a day after filming in a market, a rocket landed there. Special precautions were necessary. "We got police protection," he said. "We didn't shoot more than one or two days in a location."
Pre-production for the film took a year while Ariel Nasr, the film's Afghan-Canadian producer, worked through layers of bureaucracy to obtain the necessary permissions.
Finding their lead actors was a challenge. "You can't put an ad in Backstage West and just do auditions," French said. "We went around to all these children's shelters and tried to find kids the right age who could possibly act in this film. But first you have to explain to them what a film is and what auditions are."
The Afghan Film Project raised more than $10,000 to fly the boys to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony through a campaign on the social fundraising website Rally.org. The State Department, which provided funding to make the film, and Turkish Airlines offered to help cover their travel costs, so most of the money will go into a college fund for Fawad, organizers said.
It will be Fawad's first time out of the country and his first trip on an airplane. (He is hoping to get a look inside the cockpit.) To ease any culture shock, a production coordinator who befriended the boys during filming will travel with them to Los Angeles, where they will stay in the home of an Afghan family.
Both boys are looking forward to being fitted for tuxedos and seeing some of their favorite movie stars. Sylvester Stallone and Angelina Jolie top their list. Fawad is also hoping to get a look inside an American school.
"I'm so excited," he said.
Fawad knows that the excitement will be short-lived. When the Oscars are over, he will go back to selling maps to help his family.
But, he said, "my life is much better than the boy I played in the movie." Some of the customers he befriended are paying for him to attend a private school.
"I have the freedom to decide when to work and when not to work," he said. "But in the movie, the father is forcing his son to do the same work he does."
The film's success has turned him into a celebrity on Chicken Street. Strangers stop him to offer congratulations and take a snapshot. Some will buy a map even if they don't need one, he said.
The cellphone he bought with his movie earnings rings constantly with interview requests. It was his only purchase, he said: He gave the rest of the money to his mother.
Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.