Six months prior to September 11th, the Taliban pronounced that all non-Islamic related effigies in Afghanistan are to be destroyed. Most notably, two gargantuan Buddha statues etched on the side of a cliff in the Bamiyan Valley. Sculpted over 1,600 years ago, the demolition of these mammoth statues caused quite a stir on the international level, although, nothing was done to save them. Christian Frei’s “The Giant Buddhas” chronicles three stories surrounding the history and collapse of these beautiful giants.
Frei begins by understanding some of the history of how these statues were constructed. Inspired by a journey made by a Chinese monk (Xuanzang) centuries ago, Frei retraces these steps and narrates along with the monk’s own journal entries. It was a long expedition made by foot that took the monk 16 years to complete. When he arrived in Afghanistan, he describes everything he sees and documents the location of each artifact, including another giant Buddha is a sleeping position, which remains undiscovered to this day.
In Toronto, a woman prepares herself for her own journey to Bamiyan Valley, the birthplace of her father. She stares at photographs of him in front of the statues taken in his youth, and the woman yearns for nothing more than to take her own picture in the very same pose as her father in front of the Buddhas. Sadly, her journey doesn’t begin until it’s too late – the Buddhas were already destroyed. Determined, she goes anyway to see the scars on the side of the cliff where two giants used to dwell peacefully.
When the Taliban order the obliteration of the giants, they also declared that there was to be no photography of the actual destruction. An anxious reporter working at the infamous Al Jazeera station submerges himself with the Taliban and takes all the pictures he can. The results are devastating; the Taliban use all the arms they can, blowing up the Buddhas piece by piece. The explosions rumbled the cave side that housed many inhabitants living in caves. One of the interviewees dwelling there isn’t a Buddhist; he opposes the destruction, proving to the Taliban how tolerant these residents living amongst the colossal Buddhas.
“The Giant Buddhas” is a slow-moving documentary (unfortunately narrated horribly monotone) that exposes a side of the world rarely focused on outside of the recent war. Christian Frei had enough material for three films, yet, when compiled together, each story feels a bit incomplete.