Thursday, November 16, 2006

Film Review #63: The Giant Buddhas *** 2005 *** Director: Christian Frei *** What about Afghanistan? Five years ago this week, the Taliban fell and US troops entered Kabul. Since then, Iraq has gobbled up our money and attention, and engulfed the documentary market. Even doc superstar Errol Morris has just announced he'll start shooting a film about Abu Ghraib prison. *** Two years ago PBS broadcast the remarkable film, Afghanistan Unveiled, made by some young Afghani women – their country's first female journalists – NGO-funded, trained and mentored by Western journalists. Traveling about their own nation for the first time, they visited Bamiyan, home of the ancient cave-dwelling Hazaras, who traditionally guarded the giant Buddha statues carved into Bamiyan's cliffs 1500 years ago. The legacy of their women warriors on horse-back shows up even today. In all Afghanistan, only Bamiyan province has a woman governor. The Taliban were vicious with the Hazaras, whom they slaughtered instead of merely driving out when they took power. *** The omission of the Hazaras’ backstory is nearly the only flaw in Christian Frei's panoramic film The Giant Buddhas, which is about the statues' destruction six months before 9/11. It had its US debut at this year's Sundance but never picked up a theatrical run. I discovered it while trolling *** Frei is a Swiss filmmaker who's developing a body of work that explores how politics and media intersect, from Cuban radio stations to ancient religious fine art. His 2001 film, War Photographer, profiles photojournalist James Nachtwey. It’s one of my personal top ten. *** Frei does his own sound and travels light with just cinematographer Peter Indergand. They began this film in March 2003, two weeks before the US invasion of Iraq, and also filmed in Europe, Toronto, and China, retracing some steps of a young Chinese Buddhist monk, Xuanzang, who passed through Bamiyan in 632 AD. Xuanzang's diaries are meticulously accurate about other ancient sites, so his reports about the gilt statues with ruby eyes have caught modern attention. UNESCO says the looting of Afghani antiquities is actually more lucrative than poppies. *** Frei constructs his narrative as a series of letters to Afghan-Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira, herself the subject of the 2001 film, Kandahar. Here she reflects on her father's pilgrimage as a young man to Bamiyan as she pours over his scrapbooks and eventually travels from Toronto herself to gaze at the empty niches. After their globe-spanning correspondance, it is one of the film's most moving moments when she moves within sight of the Bamiyan cliffs and the empty niches within Frei's camera frame.*** At one point, Frei quotes an Iranian filmmaker, who says the Bamiyan Buddhas "crumbled to pieces out of shame for the West's lack of understanding.” And the film's opening is immediately sobering and embarrassing, with 19th century engravings of the statues, and words from the poets Lord Byron and Goethe. How should we take the legacy of these Romantics whose pursuit of foreign exoticism led Goethe to call the giant Buddhas "revolting beasts"? *** Bamiyan has been a crossroads for 2000 years, a convergence of the East’s regard and the West’s underestimation, a gateway of Silk Road trade and a major monastic center. Yet fanaticism wrought the following in the worst winter in 30 years, when the UN increased its sanctions on the isolated Taliban regime. Defiantly, Mullah Omar ordered the destruction of all non-Islamic idols in the country. *** At Bamiyan even local Taliban at first resisted. Then a truck convoy crossed the mountains - many Taliban froze to death on the way - and it took about two weeks to bring the Buddhas down. When grenades, artillery shells and land-mines failed, and they ran out of TNT, Pakistani and Saudi engineers came to finish the job. Local Hazara Sayyed Mirza says contemptuously that the Taliban couldn't blow up anything on their own. *** One of Frei’s coups is an interview with Al Jazeera's star reporter Taysir Alony and he uses some of Alony's footage of the explosions – clearly shot with great secrecy and anxiety – billowing across the valley's floor. Alony ponders on-screen his own quest for the Western-style big scoop and the contradictions which arose within him as he watched this murder unfold. *** We also see Afghanistan’s former chief archeologist, ZĂ©maryalai Tarzi, who wanted to excavate Bamiyan in 1978 before the Soviet invasion. Tarzi believed Xuenzang's accounts of the 300 meters-long reclining Buddha that Hazara farmers still tell their children sleeps beneath their fields. Tarzi has begun now, a little each summer. *** UNESCO, which raised the alarm in the first place, funds the salvage and restoration effort, with the blessings of the country's elderly, respected former king. Frei's film is remarkably current about this elaborate high-tech project and its space-age options - 3-D computer models, night-time holograms bathed with flood-lights, and rock chunks exactly aligned by their mineral deposits. It could flow almost seamlessly into Renee Montagne’s NPR report later this month. *** Yes, what about Afghanistan? NPR has used this 5th anniversary of the Taliban's fall to ask that question. Instead of merely recoiling from Iraq let us re-think that question. This film is one good starting point. *** This review was broadcast on Women's Voices Radio, 88.3 FM WAER Syracuse, on 11/16/2006.