Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Giant Buddhas (Frei, 2005)

Christian Frei’s documentary, The Giant Buddhas, takes as its starting point the destruction of two 1500-year old statues in the spring of 2001 by Taliban forces. The stone behemoths were destroyed as a part of a decree that all non-Islamic statues in Afghanistan would be destroyed. According to the film, this decision was largely a response to increasing financial pressure by the United States through the use of embargos. Thus, this act of cultural sabotage was performed with full knowledge of the international outrage that would follow. For the Taliban, it was like a giant middle finger directed at the rest of the world. This incident is of particular importance to me as it was the first time that I became aware of the Taliban. Perhaps this is evidence of the ‘success’ of their vile actions.

Frei’s film surprisingly does not delve very deeply into the political aspect surrounding the statues’ destruction. Perhaps he was wary that it would take him off course into territory covered extensively in other recent film documentaries. Instead, he focuses on a few lives that have been impacted in the wake of the barbaric act. There is a nomadic Afghani whose family lived in a cave so close that their home filled with dust. There is an architect who is convinced that a third Buddha exists, buried beneath the earth. There is a Canadian woman of Afghani descent who sees the missing Buddhas as a link to her father. Frei has made a distinct decision to focus on education rather than entertainment, and perhaps that is the right choice. Still, I’m wondering whether there are several minutes here that are simply unnecessary and dilute the pathos and philosophical musings at the heart of the story. Archeological digs, for example, occasionally produce amazing results, but numerous shots of sifting through dirt does not exactly make for riveting cinema.

Still, there is enough here for me to hope that this film is somehow able to reach a larger audience. There are tough questions about what the West could have done to help avoid this loss. There are also provocative questions about the nature of art, and what makes something culturally important. Many felt, for example, that the Buddhas were flat-out ugly. Did their value lie in their aesthetics, their history, their oldness? And should they be recreated? If so, does that replace the cultural link that was severed so brazenly by the Taliban? Despite the methodical pace and uninspiring narration, The Giant Buddhas is a film I am glad to have seen and evidence of an admirable soul-searching investigation.



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