Helmer quarterbacks effort to aid Somalis

Underprivileged stars of Oscar-nominated shorts hope to cross globe for kudos

Super Bowl Sunday usually caps a big weekend for Bryan Buckley, who’s directed more than 40 ads for the broadcast. But right now, the director’s focus is on a project set about as far away from the Superdome as imaginable.

Buckley is preoccupied with his Oscar-nominated short “Asad” and ongoing efforts not only to support the education of its two school-aged Somali refugee stars, Harun and Ali Mohammed — but also bring them to the Oscars.

“It certainly would be a powerful moment,” Buckley told Variety.

Buckley, who’s poised to direct Reese Witherspoon in “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus,” finds himself in a situation similar to that of helmer Sam French of Afghanistan-set, Oscar-nominated short “Buzkashi Boys,” whose young leads Fawad Mohammadi and Jawanmard Paiz are trying to make their way from Kabul to Hollywood on Feb. 24.

“Obviously, getting this honor from the Academy is unexpected and absolutely thrilling,” French said. “From our perspective, we can only hope it will shed a light on the other side of the country.”

Buckley’s involvement with “Asad” and the Mohammeds has roots in his commercial work, specifically a 2008 job with Microsoft that took him and producer Mino Jarjoura to South Africa and exposed him to the continent’s refugee dilemmas. Eventually, another project (involving Sudanese expat and NBA star Luol Deng) introduced Buckley to a Somali refugee family.

“You started to get a real sense of the spirit of the Somali people,” Buckley said. “They had been through hell, beyond belief — you started hearing the stories — and yet they were sill a family of humor, definitely. Just a very outgoing group of people.”

In July 2011, a New York Times article about famine in Somalia so affected Buckley that the man who directed Super Bowl spots for such companies as Monster.com and Cash4Gold stopped what he was working on, sat down and wrote “Asad” in one weekend.

It’s quite a script, building on an urgent foundation — a boy caught between the worlds of fishing and piracy — with clarity of storytelling from the start and a terrific lead character, leading to an ending that’s dark and goofy all at once. Buckley kept the script almost entirely intact as he and his team ventured (with no outside financing) to South Africa and, with the blessing of the script by an elder in a community of Somali refugees, begin to cast and film. None of the potential actors could read the script; Buckley had them act out scenes with no lines.

“Harun and Ali — their improv skills were ridiculous,” Buckley said of the pair, who, he only later realized, were brothers. “You could just tell.”

Originally, the younger Ali was cast in the title role. Then came the challenge of memorizing the script, which involved a translator going home with the children and doing a page per night.

“It was a disaster for Ali,” Buckley said. “He memorized the whole thing, but it was so wooden, it was like a bad play from elementary school. He could remember the words but he just couldn’t perform. Meanwhile Harun, on the other side, has the lines down.”

So the brothers switched parts, and each flowered in his new role.

“The first day of shooting, we did all the boat stuff,” Buckley said. “It was a long day. Harun that night called his dad and said, ‘Bryan doesn’t like me. Ali got to play all day, and he made me work.’ ”

As filming wound up, concern grew over what would happen with Harun and Ali. At 11 and 13, they did not have the literacy skills required to enter the school system in South Africa.

Matt Lefebvre, a producer on “Asad,” found a tutor — funded by the filmmakers — who would give the kids the accelerated learning they needed. Within a year, they’ve reached a fourth-grade level, putting them on track to eventually migrate into conventional schools.

Now, the hope is to give them their just reward of attending the Oscars. “We’re gonna get them over,” Buckley said. “The financial side of it is not a problem. It’s just dealing with the diplomatic side of it. Because they’re refugees, getting them out of the country is more difficult.”

The story of French and “Buzkashi Boys” is striking in both its similarities and differences. The USC film school grad was inspired to move to Afghanistan in 2008 and start a documentary film company.

“This place was very different from what I had been expecting from watching the news,” French said, saying the Afghans were “very hospitable” to him. “I thought I was going to be living in a bunker and dodging bullets every day.”

With a longtime friend and collaborator, Martin Roe (who co-wrote), French embarked upon a project that would tell an authentic Afghan story while also serving as a building block for the region’s tight-knit film community. As “Buzkashi Boys” was being developed, French and Roe were also teaming with such colleagues as Ariel Nasr and Leslie Knott to found the nonprofit Afghan Film Project.

“Buzkashi” used 12 Afghan trainees who worked in mentor/mentee relationships with the filmmakers.

“They’ve gone on to work in the industry and make their own films,” French said. “In that aspect, the film has already been a success.”

As with “Asad,” the short focuses on two pre-teen boys at a crossroads. One in particular dreams of becoming a star at buzkashi, which is, as French describes, “basically horse polo played with a dead goat” instead of a ball.

“These are like the NBA players of Afghanistan,” French said.

“We wanted to make it an Afghan story. We wanted to make it very culturally relevant,” he said. “We also wanted to make it a universal story that anyone who sees it can relate to, so that’s why we chose a coming-of-age story, to show they are kids just like kids all over the world, with hopes and dreams.”

And as with “Asad,” there was a twist to the casting. A local filmmaker’s child, Paiz, was cast as a street peddler, while a boy, Mohammadi, “who sells maps and bubblegum to foreigners on Chicken Street,” according to French, played the prime role of an aspirational blacksmith’s son.

“He was such a wonderful person,” French added, “and he has these enormous green eyes and this brilliant smile. I kept thinking of him because he basically inhabited the character we had written.”

AFP continues to pursue its goals in Afghanistan, and efforts continue to fund the education of Mohammadi, who supports his widowed mother. The cherry on top would be to raise money to send him with Paiz to the Oscars. (A fundraising site can be found at Rally.org/buzkashiboys.)

“We’ve raised more than half the money,” said French, who noted that passport and visa issues also need to be sorted out. “His dream has always been to be an airline pilot, though he’s never flown in an airplane.”

Many vie for the spotlight at the Oscars. But it’s hard to imagine anything could be more appropriate to the ambition of the Oscars — celebrating, on a global scale, greatness in film that makes a difference to citizens of the world — than to see, amid Daniel Day-Lewis and Ben Affleck and friends, the sight of this quartet of kids in the glow of the ceremony.