THE GIANT BUDDHAS
Switzerland / 2005 / 96'
In march 2001, two huge Buddha statues were blown up in the remote area of Bamiyantal in Afghanistan .This dramatic event surrounding the ancient stone colossi -unique proof of a high culture that bloomed until the 13th century along the Silk Road - is the starting point for a cinematic essay on fanaticism and faith, terror and tolerance, ignorance and identity.
How did it look and sound here fifteen hundred years ago? How did it smell? Conjuring the past, sifting the present, Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei is seeking the elusive, the poetic, the profound. We are in Bamiyan, the great valley in Afghanistan, site of what were once - not long ago - two giant Buddha statues. At fifty-three metres high, one of them was the tallest-standing representation of Buddha in the world.
But that was another world. In February of 2001, the Taliban issued an edict that all non-Islamic statues be destroyed. By March, the Buddhas were blown to bits. There was international outrage and this hypocrisy is one of the subjects of Frei's beautifully meandering inquiry. He quotes the Iranian filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf: "I am now convinced that the Buddhist statues were not demolished. They crumbled to pieces out of shame, because of the West's ignorance
On another path, in another period, Frei follows the footsteps of Xuanzang, the seventh-century Chinese monk famed for his sixteen-year spiritual quest along the Silk Road to India. Bamiyan was one of his pit stops.
Xuanzang's journals tantalize with evocative descriptions of the Bamiyan Buddhas and tease with mention of an even grander Buddha at a nearby monastery. Estimated to be three hundred metres long, it would be the largest statue in human history, an eighth wonder. Fascinated by the legend of the "sleeping Buddha," a French archaeologist begins to excavate even as he decries the plundering of Afghanistan's history. "Squeezed dry like a lemon," he says of the country.
In Canada, Afghan writer and journalist Nelofer Pazira reflects on an old photograph of her father posing before the giant Buddhas. Yet another time and something more ephemeral - music and laughter, also squeezed dry. In Leshan, China, a kitschy attempt to rebuild the Bamiyan Buddha as a tourist attraction; in Zurich high-tech reconstructions using "photogrammetry"; UNESCO asking for "anastylosis." Frei joins the search.
But what are they seeking on this quest, on which,
centuries ago, a Chinese monk encountered
"bewilderment and disorientation"?