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By Phil Hall | December 7, 2008

Andreas M. Dalsgaard’s documentary “Afghan Muscles” focuses on a pair of bodybuilding champions in Afghanistan, Hamidullah Shirzai and Noorulhoda Shirzad. Achieving professional success in bodybuilding is no mean feat in safe and sane countries, and in Afghanistan the situation is completely inane: a complete lack of financial backing for bodybuilders, inadequate access to the proper supplements and training assistance, and a country that is still at war with itself.

If that’s not bad enough, the two bodybuilders have plenty of human drama to deal with: Hamidullah’s father keeps nagging him to give up the sport and get married, a gym owner who previously supported the men abruptly withdraws his generosity in a fit of jealousy, the backers of the Afghan national team for the Mr. Asia competition are stingy with financial assistance, and the bodybuilders (quite frankly) are badly outclassed when they finally arrive in Bahrain to represent their country in the Mr. Asia event.

“Afghan Muscles,” which was shot in 2004, offers a strange glimpse into today’s Afghanistan. The viewer is constantly aware of American soldiers, but not American values. Gender inequality is painfully obvious at all times (Afghan women are not present at the bodybuilding events, and those who are seen are still shrouded in the demeaning burkhas), and the Afghan men who are featured here seem curiously disconnected to the chaos that is wrecking their country (one gym rat blithely admits that he no longer pays attention to the sounds of bombing that permeate the region). The film is vague on how the men can actually make a living in bodybuilding (Hamidullah is briefly shown working as a security guard, while Nooruholda’s professional activities are unknown). It also doesn’t help that neither athlete is particularly charmismatic – the looks of bafflement on their faces when they realize they are fish out of water among the more flamboyant Mr. Asia competitors will come as no surprise, given their often monotonous screen presence here.

Bodybuilding fans may find some curio aspects in how their sport is being presented in a country that, quite frankly, has more pressing issues to address than who has the biggest biceps. But for those who could care less about bodybuilding (or, for that matter, today’s Afghanistan), the film is somewhat on the puny side.

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