Since ancient times, shepherds in Central Asia have faced attacks from wolves. To prevent these attacks, horsemen would chase and grab the wolves. This skill evolved into buzkashi, a sport where 200 horsemen attempt to capture and carry the carcass of a goat across the goal line. Premiering at this year’s  Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival, Buzkashi! follows the lives of Azam, Khurshed, and Askar, three men who compete in the sport of buzkashi. Each man represents a different perspective of the sport. Askar is an up and coming star of the sport, while Azam is a respected champion. Khurshed plays more for ego and prizes, also attempting to take the sport in a new direction by using a team of players.

I have to start with a warning though. The very nature of buzkashi may trouble some viewers. Over 200 men on horseback push, shove, and slap their way to the middle of the pack, attempting to pick up the carcass of a goat. While none of the horses are ever hurt, it does look very brutal and may leave viewers wondering how the animals can deal with it. There’s also a scene early on of a goat being killed for food, as well as some scenes of sheep that have died from illness. None of this is done in an exploitative way — it’s a way of life for the people in the film — but it may be upsetting for some viewers.

The main focus of the film is Azam. His life as a shepherd can be quite difficult. Disease threatens his flock and much of the money he makes from selling his animals is spent on his 10 children. Even though buzkashi provides some impressive prizes that could benefit Azam and his family, he plays for a sense of pride and honour. On the opposite end is Khurshed, a very wealthy player who uses a team of men to help him win. More concerned with becoming the champion, Khurshed’s view of the sport goes against everything that Azam believes in. They even refer to Khurshed as running a buzkashi ‘mafia’. If Azam is the hero of the story, Khurshed is surely the villain.

The final man profiled is Askar. A young buzkashi player struggling to stay alive in the sport. In order to remain competitive, a player must get sponsors. Play well and they will come calling, and Askar is certainly a great player. Like Azam, he is also against the way Khurshed plays the sport, stating that he would never play in Khurshed’s district. When Askar suddenly loses his sponsor, it looks like Khurshed will be the only one who can help him. Becoming friends with Khurshed brings Askar more problems than he imagined, causing half of his village to go against him. It seems that many people see Khurshed as a problem within the sport of buzkashi.

As Azam struggles to stay on top of his sport, he also faces difficult decisions at home. While he wants one of his children to follow him into buzkashi, one of his sons is more interested in attending school to become a doctor. That will only happen if Azam approves. We watch as Azam tries to fit into a changing world, and whether he’ll allow his son to follow his dream or continue in his footsteps into the world of buzkashi.

You can see the world premiere of Buzkashi! at the 2012 Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival. It screens on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 9:45 pm, Tuesday, May 1, 2012 at 9:00 pm and Sunday, May 6, 2012 at 9:00 pm. Check the festival website for details and tickets.