Giant Buddhas, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 04/22/06 00:41:20

"They were big. Now they're gone. It's sad."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2006 INDEPENDENT FILM FESTIVAL OF BOSTON: The giant Buddha statues carved out of cliffs at Bamiyan were not, according to Thomas Byron, particularly magnificent works of art. He describes them as ugly works created by monks who could barely be called craftsmen. Even if one agrees with that assessment, they were still remarkable in their dimensions - fifty-three meters tall and hundreds of years old. That they were deliberately destroyed by a government looking to eradicate evidence of other cultures is an obscenity, a point which filmmaker Christian Frei makes repeatedly but yet, somehow, never quite forcefully.

It's not quite clear what got Frei fixated on these two statues, which the Taliban destroyed five years ago. The narration is structured initially as letters to Nelofer Pazira, a one-time Afghani refugee living in Toronto, and who later tells us she'd seen first them in pictures her father took on his travels, but it isn't really important. What matters is that it sends him around the world, from Bamiyan where he speaks to a man whose family lived in the caves Paris, where a professor of archeology is preparing an expedition to find other Buddhist monuments in the areas. There are also stops in Toronto, China (where he speaks to Buddhist monk scholars and attempts to view a replica), Kabul, and Qatar, where he meets the al-Jazeera reporter who covered the statues' demolition.

The footage of the destruction comes about thirty minutes in, after we've barely met cliff-dweller Sayeed Mirza Hussain, who points out where the statues used to be, how the monastery that surrounded its niche in the cliffs had served as his family's home for seventy years. The Taliban, he says, are actually pretty lousy at destroying things; they used up all their explosives only destroying half a statue and had to bring in Saudi and Pakistani experts to complete the job. He talks about how the Taliban had little use for his people and apparently couldn't comprehend how they could be Muslim and still be proud of the works of their Buddhist ancestors. This is intercut with footage of al-Jazeera, where the producer talks about how he didn't necessarily understand what a terrible thing he was witnessing until he was reviewing the footage of the statues coming down.

This section of the film is curiously muted, as though Frei is having difficulty condemning the Taliban without feeling guilty about it. He talks about how there is no universal cultural standard, but never quite manages to catch hold of the paradox that having tolerance and respect for other cultures might mean giving a pass to their dogmatic bigotry. He also spends time poking around al-Jazeera, letting the producer explicitly say, hey, we're not like the Taliban. This is something that anyone who has seen Control Room knows, comes off as awkward, and makes the film seem somewhat wishy-washy.

More interesting is some of what comes after, as we learn that the writings of a wandering Chinese monk circa 700 A.D. mention a third "sleeping" Giant Buddha, described as being 300 meters long, surely an eighth wonder of the world if true. Professor Zémaryalaď Tarzi flies in from Paris to excavate the area, discussing how Afghanistan is likely the most grievously plundered nation in the world; very few of its cultural artifacts remain. There's obvious metaphor here, that while the Taliban may have been able to destroy some evidence of the ancient Buddhist monastery, they're now gone but archaeologists will still be able to find proof of its existence underground; you can't totally erase history. A visit to a ruined Kabul museum shows terrible destruction, but people trying to literally reassemble their country's history.

In interesting counterpoint, though, is how disquieting the attempts to recreate historical artifacts are. It's one thing to see a lab in Strasbourg digitizing fifty-year-old photos to build a three-dimensional model of what the statues looked like; a UNESCO-sponsored plan to restore the bits of rubble to their original positions just seems disrespectful of history. A trip to Leshan, China, gives us a look at another large Buddha statue, but also a strange odyssey where we learn of a Buddha-inspired theme park that supposedly includes a full-sized replica of one of the Bamiyan Buddhas. The locals either deny its existence or describe it as "closed"; it turns out this replica was created by displacing a local cultural site.

There's interesting material here, but Frei seems to have no clear idea of how to assemble it into a movie that entertains as it informs. The English-language version, at least, features crushingly dry narration that wanders into philosophizing. It's structured as letters to Ms. Pazira, until she becomes the narrator in the end, but they're letters without apparent passion or excitement. We see shots of her getting her email, which I suppose explains their dryness - few people write emails as captivating as a hand-written letter - but also serves to bloat the movie a bit. He seems desperate to get the thing over the ninety minute mark, and succeeds, but spending ten minutes on al-Jazeera and however long in Leshan just serves to make the movie longer. It's also maddeningly frustrating to here the narrator utter that he feels like he's in an Indiana Jones movie in a monotone, because this film does have many of the pieces - stunning locations, travel around the world, a genial archaeologist unearthing ancient artifacts - but sucks the excitement right out of it.

It's not all bad, by any means - the first half hour is pretty tough sledding, but once the themes of re-creation and rediscovery surface, there's genuinely interesting things to think about. If the director had decided what story he wanted to tell, cut what was extraneous, and focused on the most interesting way to say it, this would be a fascinating documentary. As it is, though, it's mediocre - you'll learn something, but it will be tough to resist the temptation to check your watch to see how much longer the rambling lecture will go on.

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