By Jessica Donati
KABUL (Reuters) - Twelve-year-old Fawad Mohammadi made a living on the streets of downtown Kabul selling maps to passing expats to help support his family.
Along with many impoverished children who chased customers while they shopped for rugs and souvenirs, he worked to support his family because his father had died years before.
But he never imagined this would lead him to well-connected film maker Sam French, who would turn him into a movie star.
Mohammadi's jade-green eyes and charcoal-smeared face have now peered out from cinema screens from Los Angeles to London, starring in a short film, "Buzkashi Boys," that has been nominated for awards around the world.
"I had seen many movies, especially Afghan movies, and when I watched them I dreamed of becoming an actor. Then I met Sam French and that's how I came to act in the film," Mohammadi said at a recent screening of the film in Kabul, his gaze even more piercing in real life than on screen.
The movie is about two children growing up in Kabul who dream of becoming Buzkashi riders, horsemen who compete in the Afghan national sport similar to polo, which uses a dead goat instead of a ball.
One of the boys is a street kid like Mohammadi, the other the son of a blacksmith forced to spend long hours in his father's dark workshop sharpening axe heads.
"What I wanted to show in the film is that even these kids have hopes for the future, have dreams, which in itself is not seen in the West. What you see in the West is a whole bunch of suicide bombers and Taliban, you don't see human beings," said director French.
He said one of the challenges was getting the children to get along in real life because they came from very different backgrounds.
While Mohammadi was picked up from the streets, his co-star was already an actor, who had appeared in movies from the age of two and was the son of an Afghan film maker.
"I was very wary of casting a street kid in the film because they are not actors, but I found this kid Fawad through a friend of mine," said French, smoke wisping from a cigarette in a quiet corner of the garden, where the audience was gathered for drinks after the film screening.
In another twist, French also decided to reverse the roles of the children for the film, casting the young actor as the street kid, and Mohammadi as the son taking up his father's trade as a blacksmith.
"I kept coming back to him (Mohammadi) because his heart is the biggest heart of any man I ever met, he's the nicest guy and he was my character, he was the kid."
Now aged 14, Mohammadi is able to go to school, supported by a number of expats, and is getting straight As. He is looking forward to becoming fluent in English.
"I know English from Chicken Street (a street popular among foreigners in Kabul for its souvenir shops and where sold his maps) and I know how to speak it, but not how to speak well or write. I am learning it at school," Mohammadi said with a wide grin.
"Buzkashi Boys" is the first film to be produced by the Afghan Film Project, a non-profit group that aims to train film makers in Afghanistan, costing just over $200,000.
"The idea from the beginning was to provide training experience for young Afghan film makers... By end of the production our trainees were operating the camera and calling the shots on set," said French.
(Reporting by Jessica Donati)