Before he was a Marine who clasped a beggar girl’s tiny hand on the streets of Kabul, and before he was driven to make a film to tell that girl’s story, Regan A. Young was a talented high school oboe player from Arlington who fantasized about becoming a cinematic hero.
Think James Bond, Luke Skywalker, Iron Man — handsome protagonists with complicated lives and crafty personalities, on missions of moral purpose.
“They were my role models,” he says. “The ones who stood up for those who couldn’t and tried to do good in the world.”
Young, 27, embodies a kind of idealism that flirts with obsession. He is speaking from Los Angeles, where he says he is two months behind on his rent and cannot afford to fix his laptop. That’s because he funnels what money he has into a quixotic movie project he calls “Marza,” which, for the moment, exists as a 20-minute short he plans to screen this month.
The screening won’t be in a theater. It will be in an Asian-fusion restaurant in Arlington. But then, very little about Young’s project is conventional, at least in the Hollywood sense.
The former staff sergeant wrote a script set in Afghanistan that focuses on a character he calls a “lost and faithless” combat Marine whose life changes after meeting 6-year-old Marza, who peddles trinkets in Kabul’s international enclave.
Young basically wrote about himself; he often walked through the military and diplomatic zone while on his final deployment in Afghanistan in 2011-12. There, a 6-year-old named Mursal Hawa, who spoke English well, gamely offered to accompany him as his “bodyguard,” he says.
She took his hand, insisted on giving him string bracelets and reminded him of his baby sister. Soon he was supplying Mursal, her older sisters and other street kids with toys, food and money.
“The kids loved him,” recalls Marine Staff Sgt. Ray Garcia, a close buddy who served with Young in Kabul. “He was so happy to introduce me to his little friends.”
Young now wants to introduce these children to the wider world, to show how they suffer as castouts at the bottom of Afghan society, collateral damage in a war zone. He is undaunted by the fact that audiences seem sick of the war — and of war pictures.
The steps to success — finding backers for a full version of the film, getting the movie released, persuading people to see it — are beyond daunting. Young’s response so far: “Guns up, let’s do this.” To be the hero, you have to try.
After six months in Kabul as an operations battle captain, Young left the Marines; he had served his eight-year commitment. He moved to Los Angeles, determined to break into movies. He liked showmanship: Back at Yorktown High School in Virginia, Young acted, was a drum major and played several instruments. He was recruited into the Marines as an oboist in 2004 and spent two years in the Marine Corps Band before seeking an assignment to deploy with the infantry.
In L.A. he hustled for auditions, took on-set security jobs and started writing scripts. He also contemplated how to provide a route out of violence and poverty for Mursal and c. He says he explored how he might become Mursal’s guardian so she could be educated in America.
It was a generous impulse — Young is known among friends for his considerable generosity — but a naive one. He eventually came to realize that Islamic tradition would bar a girl from moving to the United States to live with an unrelated man. In Afghanistan, many girls are forbidden from leaving the house once they reach sexual maturity; their husbands are chosen for them.
Besides, in a purely commercial sense, Mursal was quite valuable to her family. She and her sisters were on the street for a reason: They brought in money.
Novice film writers are traditionally taught that a good script requires an “inciting incident” — an event that gets the story rolling, sometimes propelling the hero to action. For Young, sitting in L.A., that event occurred in Kabul on Sept. 8, 2012, an overcast Saturday.
Around noon, a teenage boy approached a spot near a carpet shop in the Green Zone where a knot of scrappy children panhandled, sold gum and hawked handicrafts. Across the street, about 50 yards away, loomed the fortresslike headquarters of U.S. and allied forces.
The boy, lugging a knapsack, looked 14 or 15 years old, witnesses later said. The regular hawkers were suspicious of him. They accused the stranger of trying to horn in on their territory and trade, according to several accounts.
There was a tussle, and the boy detonated the explosives in his backpack. The bomber, local officials said, had been dispatched by the Taliban. His victims, seven in all, included four youngsters and three adult Afghans.
Reporting in Kabul at the time, I reached the scene within hours and found small plastic sandals strewn in the leaves and dirt. Police were sweeping up debris amid rain puddles stained pink by blood.
It turned out that Mursal Hawa survived. Her sisters Parwana and Khorshid perished.
The deaths traumatized American and international contractors, troops and other personnel in the Green Zone — people had bonded with the kids, trading smiles and a few words in one another’s languages, taking pictures, buying their wares. Four of the dead were skateboarders, participants in a program called Skateistan that provided education for children and empowered girls, the very ideals that the United States had been fighting a dozen years to achieve in Afghanistan.
Some came to believe the youngsters sacrificed themselves to protect coalition troops, specifically stopping the bomber so he could not reach headquarters.
Regan Young and Ray Garcia consider them fallen troops. They wear black aluminum bracelets dedicated to Parwana and Khorshid, KIA. Killed in action.
Young heard the news of the bombing from colleagues still in Kabul. “I felt horribly helpless,” he later said. He dropped the sci-fi script he was working on. He decided to make a movie to honor the Afghan children and highlight all innocent lives lost in war.
He also wanted it to be about love and hope, hence the focus on Mursal, who was still alive.
To help pitch it, he created a moody poster depicting a Marine in battle gear towering over a waif veiled with a brown shawl. Tag line: “Marza. Those with nothing give everything.” He also did what other indie filmmakers do these days: He set up a Kickstarter crowdfunding appeal. His goal was to raise $5,000 to start production.
In January, I met with Young at a cafe in Tysons Corner after he got in touch seeking any details about the bombing I might have. A few months out of the service, he arrived in full dress uniform. Muscular, assured, polite, bright smile: A United States Marine straight from proverbial central casting.
I read his treatment and partial script and offered some thoughts and facts. From what I’ve seen, the arc basically follows the Marine from boot camp to the suicide bombing site. “Marza” had potential, I said, and I wished him luck — he would need it.
But those who know Young have fewer doubts, citing his toughness, drive and ego. “He is just a very ambitious person,” says Garcia, 27, Young’s former roommate and bandmate in the Marines. “I don’t know of anything he wanted that he didn’t get. But it wasn’t just handed to him; it’s because he worked harder.”
Screenwriting exercises include sketching out a character’s back story from childhood, to help explain his personality and motivation. Young’s is a bit opaque. He won’t discuss his family in any detail, saying only that his mother is a musician and he has two sisters.
His childhood included the disruption of divorce and what he calls “a complicated growing-up.” He insists on leaving it at that.
“I feel he has a deep desire for everyone to like him, whether for good or bad,” says Bryan Lee, whose friendship with Young dates to elementary school. “He has always wanted to be a performer of some sort, to be in the limelight.”
In Lee’s eyes, Young’s Facebook postings and photos contain a certain duality. His friend is a do-gooder who’s also very good at self-promotion. “He is always generous and helpful, but makes sure he captures the moment” for all to see, says Lee, 27, an Arlington County firefighter.
This calls to mind the vainglorious Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man. “I think he still identifies with trying to be a superhero in a way,” Lee says. “He wants to be Iron Man.”
As a Marine musician, Young served in a stateside unit; he didn’t have to go to a war zone. Yet he persistently tried to. “He was constantly asking to deploy overseas,” Garcia recalls. “He ended up with an infantry unit in Iraq.”
Young served in 2007-08 in Hit, by then a largely pacified city in Anbar province, “doing foot patrol and going outside the wire a lot, getting the full experience,” he says. Especially after oboe playing, “it was a whole different world.”
He prevailed upon friends back home to send treats, toys and coloring books for children in the neighborhoods he patrolled. “The best part about it, he was 100 percent genuine, not like there was something in it for him,” Garcia says
Next came assignments as a U.S. Embassy guard, including in Harare, Zimbabwe. In that African capital, AIDS deaths had left behind a swelling population of orphans. Young staged a Disney-themed musical to benefit orphanages and entertain the children.
“The Search for Mickey,” featuring volunteer Zimbabwean dancers, actors, singers and musicians, premiered with a five-day run in the summer of 2010. Because of budget overruns and the pull-out of financiers, Young says he had to take a $10,000 credit union loan to cover its costs. The project raised $10,000 in donations, though.
He realizes he could have just donated his own money to charity in the first place. “But then all those orphans would not have seen it,” he said, “and I would not have had that experience.”
This year Young completed a three-month filmmaking crash course, raised $5,000 in his first Kickstarter campaign, put together a cast and a technical team that worked for nothing or nearly nothing, produced a trailer for “Marza,” raised $5,000 more to complete the 20-minute feature, directed a music video for the film — and has pretty much gone broke, devoting, by his estimate, another $5,000 to keep the project going.
“It’s based on gumption. It is seriously a glue, string, tape production,” says Peggy Iafrate, who owns an entertainment marketing company in Massachusetts. Moved by the “Marza” story, she says she kicked in a “substantial donation.”
“The story is earnest, true humanity — and the storytelling, based on what I’ve seen, is absolutely incredible,” she says. “It’s so personal because he lived it.”
Young’s goal is to enter his short film in festivals and hope it stirs interest from producers. “The hopes of actually making money off of these things is a huge crapshoot,” says Shaun Royer, who co-produced the film’s title song. He noted that his business partner wouldn’t invest because she didn’t want to be associated with a picture about Afghanistan.
“But I don’t see it as a war film,” Royer says. “I see it as a film about children doing courageous things. The Malala story has changed the world, and I don’t see ‘Marza’ as anything different.”
There is at least one difference. Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girls rights advocate nearly killed by the Taliban in 2012, is alive and well in Britain. Where is little Mursal, the inspiration for Marza?
Young says he hasn’t been able to find her family or her, but believes she is alive.
As military helicopters throbbed overhead, my wife, Michele, and I threaded our way cautiously through the Green Zone’s checkpoints on a chilly February evening this year, Ash Wednesday, looking for a small chapel in the Italian Embassy — the only place in Kabul where Mass was celebrated. I pointed out the spot where the teen suicide bomber had killed the children five months earlier.
Suddenly a group of kids swarmed us, speaking in English, hoping for handouts. “You remember me?” asked one little girl, her brown headscarf pushed back to reveal a ruddy forehead.
A guard at the entrance to the Italian Embassy yelled at the kids, and they scampered off as we ducked into the doorway.
After the service, the sun had set and the road was still except for the stray cats that had suddenly come to life. Then two of the little girls from earlier reappeared, wraithlike, out of nowhere.
“Will you buy a scarf, madam?” the younger one, 5 or 6 years old, pleaded.
The other, about 7, the one hooded in brown, slipped her hand into my wife’s pocket. “My hand is cold,” the girl said. “I don’t have any money to take a taxi to my home.”
They kept stride with us as we approached NATO headquarters.
“Do you know the children who got killed here?” I asked. “Did you know Parwana?”
The one with my wife answered: “She is my big sister, but she has died. My mother cannot stop crying because my sisters have died.”
I gave them what cash I had in my pocket. “You should go home now,” I said.
Later, looking at pictures Young had put on the Internet, I realized the older girl was Mursal — Marza. The other was probably her little sister. On the streets, begging, just like before: Afghanistan does not change.
A final word about heroes, from the screenwriters’ point of view.
Heroes must be complex and fully human: flawed, at times unlovable, even weak. Skywalker is gripped by self-doubt. Stark is insufferably smug. Bond, an unconscionable rake.
Only if the protagonist is flesh and blood will the audience root for him.
“The reason a protagonist is successful is because whoever wrote the protagonist made him relatable,” says Young, who wrote himself as the hero of his own movie.
Surely he knows, then, about another dictum: The hero can’t always win.
Michele Langevine Leiby contributed to this story.