For decades, athletics have been used to signal a belief in national pride. The Olympics, World Cup, and World Baseball Classic allow athletes to become international celebrities. For Kalakov Mulakhil and Khaiber Azbarzada, the stakes are far higher. The nephews of a famed athlete who was executed in Afgahnistan’s Civil War, they hope to bring their family back to national prominence. As their national profile rises, America withdraws its forces from Kabul. Riders on the Storm shows a unique point-of-view of the fall of Kabul, putting the audience at street level as the Taliban retakes control of Afghanistan.
Documentarians Jason Motlagh and Mark Oltmanns embed with Khaiber Azbarzada’s camp as he preps for the National Championship of Buzkashi. An ancient sport, Buzkashi features horseman wrestling for control of a headless goat and dropping the corpse in scoring circles. Khaiber and Kalakov are two of the best players in the country and, as a result, hold considerable influence over those in the country. However, when the Taliban feels they could threaten their control, the brothers go into hiding to avoid their uncle’s fate.
The first half of Riders on the Storm plays like an inspirational sports film. We watch Khaiber battle through each adversity as he becomes the best Buzkashi in the world. The battles and fights in the scrums become intensely physical. Buzkashi makes for a fascinating subject on its own, and the struggle between the two brothers to take the championship is thrilling.
However, the quick descent into the war strikes at the heart of their efforts. As the Taliban advances, the footage becomes harrowing. As the brothers hide in gardens or gyms, we hear the ricochet of bullets and the pop of gunfire. We watch the world collapse around them, and the danger becomes very real. During one scene, where the brothers wait for a plane out of Afghanistan, gunfire opens in the streets. The cameraman dives for cover, and we see the terrified faces of those who will not get out.
The footage gets increasingly bloody, and you genuinely worry for the well-being of Khaiber and Kalakov. The battle for the soul of Afghanistan rages around them, and with it, their dreams go up in smoke. They must flee the country or be killed. They represent a threat the Taliban cannot control. As we watch them work through the anguish of leaving their family behind, they see the emotional toll it takes on both of them. It makes Riders on the Storm one of the most emotionally affecting and serious documentaries of the festival.