Review: ‘Out of the Ashes’

The real-life contempo Cinderella story of how Afghanistan's ragtag cricket team rose up through the sport's international ranks.

The real-life contempo Cinderella story of how Afghanistan’s ragtag cricket team rose up through the sport’s international ranks is charmingly recounted in Brit-made docu “Out of the Ashes.” Co-helmed by Lucy Martens (a d.p. and editor for CNN who’s made one solo docu feature previously) and Timothy Albone (who has covered Kabul for the London Times), and produced by journo Leslie Knott, this straightforward but often humorous pic is ultimately more about people and passion than about the game itself. Still, cricket’s popularity in Commonwealth countries will make these territories pic’s natural playground.

Although made to be shown on “Storyville,” a primetime docu slot on BBC4, HD-shot “Ashes” looked at home on a bigscreen (in digital projection) at Edinburgh, where it generated buzz and good press. It helped that the story ends on an upbeat note for the Afghani team, whose troubles and mixed fortunes in the 2009 Cricket World Cup forms the bulk of the film’s narrative.

Front and center is Taj Malik, the team’s first coach, head cheerleader and all-around mother hen. A former refugee from Afghanistan’s war with Russia, who grew up playing cricket with his brothers in the streets, using concrete blocks for wickets, Malik is one of those gifted mentors who make up for their lack of pro experience with love for their players and the game itself. When he asserts at pic’s beginning that all of the world’s problems, including war, could be solved with cricket, he isn’t really joking.

Action tracks Malik and his players from the decrepit Kabul clubhouse where they train through various qualifying stages for the Cricket World Cup — first in Jersey, a British crown dependency in the English Channel, and later in Tanzania. Roughly equal time is allotted to the athletes playing ball and their reactions to Western culture: Without ever patronizing its subjects, pic generates chuckles from the players’ nervous encounters with hotel food (one worries something on the buffet might contain donkey meat) and agog reactions to senior citizens line-dancing to a cheeseball version of “Do You Know the Way to Amarillo?”

Those unfamiliar with the rules of cricket might feel baffled by what’s actually happening on the pitch, but it’s easy enough to get the gist: The players cheer and smile when they do well, and look sad when they lose. Spectators on the sidelines are called on to give their own folksy analyses, a canny device that both provides insight and adds color.

Tech credits are nothing fancy, and the film was obviously made on a limited budget, but the small crew has clearly done its best with the resources at hand. Helmer Sam Mendes, a known cricket fanatic, is credited as executive producer.

Out of the Ashes

U.K.

Production

A Shabash, Bungalow Town production for the BBC, in association with the Norwegian Broadcasting Corp., the CBA-DFID Broadcast Media Scheme. (International sales: Bungalow Town Prods., Wortham.) Produced by Rachel Wexler, Leslie Knott. Executive producers, Greg Sanderson, Tom Roberts, Sam Mendes. Co-producer, Timothy Albone. Directed by Lucy Martens, Timothy Albone. Co-director, Leslie Knott.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Albone, Martens; editor, Gregor Lyon; music, Andrew Phillips; sound, Martens, Albone. Reviewed at Edinburgh Film Festival (Document), June 25, 2010. Running time: 85 MIN.

With

Taj Malik, Mr. Massoud, Karim Saddiq, Hasti Gul Abid, Gulbadeen Naib, Nawruz Mangal, Ahmed Shah. (English, Pashto dialogue)
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