All things change; nothing is permanent," runs the old Buddhist saw, in no case more pertinent than Afghanistan's remote Bamiyan valley, whose two giant stone statues, carved out of the rock face, were blown to smithereens by the Taliban in early 2001. Swiss documaker Christian Frei ("War Photographer") takes a pleasingly objective stance toward the emotive subject in "The Giant Buddhas," which, with some trimming of its more fanciful material, would make a good hourlong docu for pubcasters and cable.
Not everyone thought the statues were works of art: Goethe reckoned they were "revolting beasts" and Byron opined that "the result has not even the dignity of labour." But when the Taliban decreed in Feb. '01 that all non-Islamic statues be destroyed, the news hit the international headlines, courtesy of exclusive footage captured by Al Jazeera journalist Taysir Alony (reproduced in all its shocking matter-of-factness).
Alony argues that there was a degree of hypocrisy in the reaction of the outside world, which until then had shown little interest in subjects like Afghan children maimed by landmines or starving from malnutrition. Suddenly, it all boiled down to a couple of famous, 1,500-year-old statues being dynamited.
Film could almost be retitled "The Buddha Effect," as, rather than just focusing on the history of the statues (about which little is said) or their destruction, Frei uses them as a destination point for people's personal journeys, intercut throughout the pic.
That of 7th-century Chinese monk Xuanzang, who crossed from Xi'an to Bamiyan in a 16,000-kilometre trek on foot, recording his thoughts in a surviving diary, is neatly re-enacted -- and leads to one of the film's more interesting strands, the ongoing hunt by archeologists for a third, sleeping Buddha statue that Xuanzang casually mentions. A more fanciful strand, portrayed in letters written by Frei, focuses on Afghan-Canadian author-actress Nelofer Pazira (in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar") who journeys back to Bamiyan in some kind of spiritual odyssey that smacks of grandstanding.
Frei reserves his most straightfaced irony for Unesco boffins who, in a perfect example of Western scientific overkill, want to restore the few remaining chunks of rock to their original positions in the cliffside cavern -- to the bafflement of locals.
Meanwhile, in the pic's funniest seg, the Chinese authorities in Leshan, Sichuan province, immediately set to work building a replica of the principal statue, but have now covered it up, presumably for security reasons. Frei's insistent but rebuffed attempts to get to see it are worthy of a Nick Broomfield documentary.
Tech package is OK, and extracts from works by Philip Glass convey a suitably mystical feel to much of Peter Indergand's lensing of the stark, arid location. As well as English- and German-narrated 35mm versions, film also exists in English, German, French and Italian Betacam versions for TV.
Camera (color), Peter Indergand; music, works by Philip Glass, Jan Garbarek, Steve Kuhn, Arvo Part; music advisor, Manfred Eicher; sound designer (Dolby Digital), Florian Eidenbenz; visual effects, Patrick Lindenmaier, Paul Avondet. Reviewed at Locarno Film Festival (Filmmakers of the Present), Aug. 8, 2005. (Also in Toronto Film Festival, Real to Reel.) Running time: 95 MIN.