In the late 6th and early 7th centuries, on what was a Buddhist religious site, monks who lived in small caves on the local mountain carved the largest Buddhas in the world into the side of the Bamiyan cliffs of Afghanistan. As a major cultural monument to religious expression, the statues stood in sculptural splendor with finely detailed textures molded from mud and straw. Most would agree that they were as much art as icons of a major world religion. It is hard to imagine anyone thinking of them as anything less than a treasure of the ages.
On March, 2001, they were gone — ordered destroyed by Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of the Taliban, who saw them as “idols” that posed a threat to his uncivilized dogma. Needless to say, most of the rest of the world was shocked and appalled.
In 2002 one man, a documentarian, was moved by this tragedy to go to the site to better understand the loss from the perspective of Afghans who resided in the very caves once occupied by the statues’ sculptors.
Though it was the destruction of the Buddhas that brought him to the high altitudes of the Bamyan valley of central Afghanistan, 143 miles northwest of Kabul, British director Phil Grabsky (Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World) knew that his film needed a compelling central figure — a local person who would consider attention from an outsider with a camera a favorable novelty, and who would be willing to endure the demands of being the subject of a film. This person would, ideally, have a bit of a ham in his or her bones. And it would be through the perspective of such a person that a story would unfold.
It didn’t take StarSearch to find that person. As Grabsky was filming a general view of the area, who poked his face into the frame but an impudent eight-year old boy named Mir. The central figure of the film that would become The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan had thus volunteered for a great deal of camera attention, which pleased him as much as it did the filmmaker.
That serendipitous moment got the first part of the story off to a start, and is reprised in this sequel and ten-year followup. The Boy Mir, contains the new film star’s maturation from rash eight-year-old with a gleam in his eye to young adult of eighteen and the conflicting impulses that guide him into manhood.
Throughout the footage, a mutuality of dedication to the project is evident between the man behind the camera and his subjects as their difficult lives evolve. Never is there a question of intrusion. Rather, there’s an earnestness that suggests the pride Mir and his family take in being the ones chosen for the endeavor. Relating the details of their lives, ordinary and consequential, has become a unique way for an Afghan family of little opportunity to share their triumphs and sufferings with the larger world.
A major family concern throughout the film is Mir’s schooling versus a destiny of manual labor in the local coal mines, gathering wood or driving livestock. They leave the Bamiyan valley and move to the northern mountain ranges. Both Mir’s father Abdul, who suffered a mining accident that ended his days of physical labor, and Mir’s older brother Khushdel, the family’s essential breadwinner, express the desire to see the boy become more than they ever did. Dad’s feelings about his son’s schooling wavers as immediate needs pressure him, while big brother remains steadfast in his support of the youngster’s betterment.
Growing up, Mir himself is torn by conflicting impulses. He understands the value of school and study, and understands what it could mean for him and his family, but maintaining status among his peers is an opposing force that is very compelling. He spends a portion of his meager income for a bicycle (which his excellent brother helps buy) and, when that’s destroyed, a motorcycle. Do we judge this as squandering a family’s resources or a poor teenager’s need for gratification?
The filmmaker captures the universality of such behavior in a country we think of as being too corrupt and fanatical to break out of the chains of its violent history and dysfunctional government. The predominantly secular village of the Bamiyan valley, fortunately left in freedom during a period when the Taliban are elsewhere preoccupied turns this film into a study of generalized human experience.
Grabsky’s mosaic of village life shows us glimpses of an overburdened school; of Mir as one of ten young men shoveling a load of coal into a company truck for his cut of $40 a day; of a wealthy man sponsoring races for the young men of the village and paying the winners and runner-ups. We see the extraordinary case of the village residents who, having no taxing authority, chip in for an electric generator and Mir’s subsequent delight when he is able to watch TV with his friends and neighbors. We witness the mutual fear between villagers and a two-vehicle military unit on a goodwill patrol, leaving behind a gift of notepads that does little more than provoke cynicism for such inept gestures. High country landscapes through changing seasons are used to bridge Grabsky’s many visits.
The footage of family and community is assembled by editor Phil Reynolds to provide continuity in the ten years of the project, mirroring the physical growth and increasing awareness of the title subject. Mir and brother Khushdel’s articulation in the interviews grow in confidence and sense of participation even as they recount frustrations and disappointments in their lives.
There’s no happy ending in this slice of life. What this glimpse of a young man’s destiny of hardship affords us is the unveiling of realities in a distant place. The impressions it makes are plain and unalloyed, private, intimate, and free of a censor’s scissors or a publicist’s hype.
The operative word is “free.” In a land so endangered by war, religious fundamentalism, and corruption, Mir and his brethren are, at least, free. And we can take to heart the commonalities we share with the most disparate societies on the planet. This documentary may be less than polished, but in conveying an understanding of Afghan culture better than anything we’ve seen yet, it’s well worth its ninety minute screen time, and a lot more.
Aka, O mikros Mir – Deka hronia sto Afghanistan (in the Dari language)