Documenting a feat of monumental destruction
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 13 September 2005)

When the leaders of the Taliban set out to destroy the grandest and most famous religious monuments in Afghanistan, they demonstrated that their competence in such matters was roughly equal to their kindness and their tolerance. As fanatical Muslims, they hated the ancient Buddhas standing in the Bamiyan Valley, and were determined to raze them; as it turned out, the Taliban had no idea how to execute this titanic act of vandalism.

In February, 2001, their leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, taking time out from ordering executions and punitive amputations as pre-game entertainment at Kabul soccer games, turned his attention to images.He explained that religious icons are the gods of the infidels and wrecking them is a duty. Soon it became clear he meant to knock down the Bamiyan Buddhas, which had been standing for 1,500 years in niches carved into a mountain in the heart of the Hindu Kush mountains.

No one claimed these were great works of art, but just about everyone agreed they were precious relics. UNESCO, alarmed, sent an envoy to plead with the Taliban for preservation rather than obliteration. The envoy failed, and so did a proposal from the Metropolitan Museum of New York to buy them. The wanton destruction in March, 2001, intensified the odour of malicious barbarity surrounding the Taliban, and helped make the war against Afghanistan popular.

This grotesque example of grand-scale malevolence provides the basis for Christian Frei's remarkable 95-minute documentary, The Great Buddhas, shown this week at the Toronto International Film Festival. Recent seasons have led us into a golden age of ambitious documentaries, and The Great Buddhas takes its place within this movement.

It lacks the monstrous narrative of Capturing the Friedmans and Nathaniel Kahn's urgent emotional need to grasp the nature of his great father, Louis Kahn, in My Architect: A Son's Journey. It has neither the charm nor the natural science that make March of the Penguins memorable.

But The Giant Buddhas places us at a fascinating intersection of politics, religion and culture. Frei's account ranges from the horrifying to the comic, and in the process delivers as much fresh information as I've ever absorbed from a single documentary.

He introduces us to a terrific cast of characters, among them the Al-Jazeera TV journalist who filmed the explosions with a hidden camera; some crazed restorationists who want to reassemble the Buddhas by putting together the many fragments of exploded rock; and Sayyed Mirza Hussain, a cave dweller who lived in the mountain that held the statues; he was banished by the Taliban, and came back in secret to watch the annihilation of the objects that had towered over his whole life.

Hussain describes how the Taliban's first assault, with tank guns, grenades and antiaircraft missiles, barely scratched the sculptures. They then set off grenades and bombs at the feet of the Buddhas, but after 20 days the torsos stubbornly remained standing. Finally the Taliban gave up and brought in engineers from Saudia Arabia and Pakistan. They drilled holes in the statues and poured in enough explosives to blow them to pieces.

The bigger of the two figures was the largest standing Buddha in the world, as high as a 10-storey building; the other was about two-thirds as tall. Balconies, chapels, meeting rooms, and dwellings were carved into the soft rock around them, the walls in many cases decorated with frescoes. The valley, a link between central Asia and India, attracted thousands of camel caravans working the Silk Road, many pilgrims and a multitude of Buddhist monks. They built 10 monasteries into the cliff.

Around the year 632 AD, a Chinese monk named Xuanzang visited the Bamiyan Valley, described the two famous statues and also noted a third Buddha, not otherwise heard about since. It was horizontal, a "sleeping Buddha" 300 metres long. Frei brings on an Afghani archaeologist at Marc-Bloch University in Strasbourg who believes the sleeping Buddha lies buried somewhere in the valley and hopes to find it.

Frei also introduces us to Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan-Canadian author and actress who grew up in Kabul under the Soviet occupation and fled with her family. In 2001, she played the lead in Kandahar, a much-admired film directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf of Iran. Followed by Frei's cameras, she goes back to Afghanistan to see what is left of Bamiyan.

The Great Buddhas becomes a kind of comic detective story when Lei tells us that at Leshan, a Chinese city in Sichuan Province that's known for its own giant Buddha, managers of a park decided to create a fresh tourist attraction by reproducing the Bamiyan Buddha in a smaller (but still pretty substantial) version. Much of the work was done, but by the time Frei's crew arrived the government cultural authorities had decided it sounded too much like Disneyland and should be abandoned.

On camera, the locals insist to Frei that they never heard of such a project, and it couldn't possibly exist. When others were questioned, they admitted there was such a statue but no one could see it. Finally, the cameras are taken to it, and we get a glimpse of a partially constructed Buddha, now hidden behind camouflage cloth on the side of a mountain -- waiting, perhaps, for a favourable change in attitude among the cultural politicians in Beijing.

Taysir Alony, the Al-Jazeera man, tries to explain that the Taliban did not act entirely out of bigotry. They were defending Afghanistan, in a way: "They felt that the world had cheated them." The world had isolated the Taliban, an economic blockade had crippled the economy, and they wanted to attract attention.

In the post-Taliban era, Hussain and his neighbours happily moved back. But the new Bamiyan governor had other ideas. The mountain, with its many Buddhist-decorated niches, was a UNESCO world heritage site and the governor thought people living there might harm it or perhaps impede the essential work of archaeology. So the residents have been moved, much against their will, to a new town of ugly little houses on a cold, windswept plateau, a two-hour walk away from the bazaar where they have sold their products for centuries.

They are all in their new houses now, hundreds of them, robbed of their caves and robbed of their historic community. The Taliban damaged more than the sculptures.

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