The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan

By Max Leonard

In March 2001 the gigantic statue of Buddha hewn in a cavity of the rock in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, was destroyed by the ruling Taliban, along with the countless other smaller effigies that surrounded it. The tallest carved stone statues in the world, their symbolic destruction was part religious intolerance, part wake-up call to protest at the lack of aid received from the West by a country which had suffered four years of drought. By the time Phil Grabsky, a Brighton-based documentary filmmaker, made his first trip there in summer 2002, there were over 250 Afghan families living in the caves behind the fallen figure, driven from their homes by religious persecution and poverty, gathering in Bamiyan in the hope that there would be rebuilding work on the shattered statues. There Grabsky met one such family, Shia Muslims with an 8-year-old son called Mir, who quickly became the focus of the film. Mir is almost comically cute, with a cheeky smile, sticky-out ears, boundless energy, and more than a hint of Dennis the Menace in everything he does. In the early stages of the film he gives the camera a knee-high tour of the rubble, burnt mosaics and smashed-up caves, and works as a water-carrier for his family. Such a central character, coupled with the stunningly beautiful landscape shots of mountains (and an unhealthy dose of pan-pipes) could, in the wrong hands, make the film seem too much like an overly-sentimental advertisement appeal for charitable aid, but thankfully the material is used here to much more serious, and thought-provoking, purposes. The situation is a perfect microcosm of the damage that political instability and the Taliban’s violent regime have wreaked, the personal and the political coming together on a small stage. Mir’s father suffers from a broken back and the family survives by scavenging cow’s stomachs from the local butcher, all in the shadow of the cavernous empty recess in the rock, dominated by the absence of the Buddha. The only artefacts displayed by the film are not cultural but are instead the relics of war, rows of tank skeletons decaying in the sun under endless blue skies.

The film is insightful on all the different forces that have shaped Afghanistan’s recent history. Some characters fought with the Mujahidin against the Soviets, while another confesses to have worn the white turban of the Taliban. US helicopters flying overhead, and the use of radio news reports on the soundtrack, bring the geopolitical reality of the current situation home. A long elegy by Mir’s father evokes the brotherhood between the religious sects before the Russian invasion, nicely encapsulating the point that religious extremism is not something inherent in Islam, but that the rise in fundamentalism is a direct function of late global capitalism, the Taliban coming to prominence in the aftermath of the Soviet withdrawal, after US support against the communists helped to force their retreat. But the emphasis in the film is squarely on the personal impact of all these conflicts, on the people caught in the crossfire. One individual interviewed on his knowledge of 9/11 says that Osama Bin Laden, an American, destroyed a building 4 or 5 stories tall, showing how disconnected the global events are, on one level, from the ordinary people of Afghanistan. The focus on one family, and the linear presentation of the story according to the seasons of the year – human rather than historical time – along with in-depth interviews gives the viewer an emotional involvement in the film. Much of this is down to Mir’s sparkle, left to shine through the screen absence of Grabsky as interlocutor, allowing an unmediated attachment to the little boy whose innocence in the face of so much hardship and cruelty provides moments of genuine humour.

Perhaps the most affecting of these occurs after he is being told off for hitting another little boy in a fight. Petulant and tearful with his father, immediately when left alone he turns to the camera, laughs and exclaims, 'did you see that? I almost floored him!' A familiar scene from any playground scrap, this cuts through the superficialities of cultural difference to show the fundamentals of human nature that, magnified later in life, result in war and destruction. The film never explicitly addresses the ethical choices that have to be made in any documentary project; there is no comment on the fact that the difference in cultures made it impossible to really feature a female perspective in the film and Grabsky, in a recent question-and-answer session, acknowledged the dilemmas involved in deciding whether to pay the family – an intervention that led to a certain amount of jealousy within the group but almost certainly helped to see them all through the icy winter alive. But rather than coming across as manipulation, this reveals the essentially humanitarian project of the film; its balanced view is a commitment to political rather than ideological values. Truly cinematographic and beautifully shot this is, along with Siddiq Barmak’s recent movie Osama, essential viewing for anyone with a serious interest in global affairs, and is another sign of the contemporary resurgence of the feature-length documentary.
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