In February of 2001, the Taliban issued an edict that all non-Islamic statues in Afghanistan be destroyed. By March, the Buddhas had been blown to bits. At 53 meters high, one of them was the tallest representation of Buddha in the world. International outrage ensued and the hypocrisy of this is one of the subjects of Frei’s beautiful inquiry. The result is an essay about terrorism and tolerance, ignorance and identity, fanaticism and faith.
|Running Time:||95 min.|
|Subject(s):||Arts and Culture, Asian Studies, Conflicts, Current Affairs, Ethnography, History, Investigative Journalism, Middle Eastern Studies see all »|
|Production Company:||Christian Frei Filmproductions|
I view my film as a hymn to the diversity of opinions, religions and cultures. Nobody – neither the Taliban nor American politics – should force the rest of the world into homogeneity and uniformity. The dispassionate way in which I narrate the fanatical iconoclast perpetrated by the Taliban, is also my political message. Of course it is an act of ignorance to knock off the head of a defenceless statue and to destroy it. Yet the response to this ignorance shouldn’t be countered by further ignorance.
Shooting of the film started two weeks before the outbreak of the war in Iraq in March 2003. Cinematographer Peter Indergand and I managed to get an interview with “Al Jazeera” star reporter Taysir Alony. He was the only journalist permitted to film the destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. I was aware that he had excellent contacts to the inner circle of al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. Nevertheless, I was deeply shocked when Taysir was arrested in Spain just a few weeks after shooting was complete. The public prosecutor accuses him of having regular phone contact with and providing support for terrorists.
The blowing up of the two colossal Buddhas in the remote Bamiyan valley in March 2001 was a beginning. Just six months later the attack on the Twin Towers in New York followed. However, “The Giant Buddhas” is not a film about terror, rather a film about transience, a film about the loss of cultural identity, about the search for truth, beauty and diversity. I was simply interested in looking back on an event that shook the world and decided to embark on a film journey.
A journey along a multi-facetted line that both connects and divides people and cultures.
Bamiyan – The valley of the giant Buddhass
For fifteen hundred years, two gigantic Buddha statues stood in their niches cut in the cliff flanking the remote Bamiyan valley of present day Afghanistan. The smaller of the two statues, thirty-five metres high and referred to as “Shamama” (Queen Mother), was hewn into the soft conglomerate of the two kilometre long rock face in the year 507. Painted blue and with a golden face, the figure was supposed to represent
the Buddha Sakyamuni. The second statue – the “Salsal” Buddha (“light shines through the universe”) – was built fifty years later. At fifty-five meters, this was the greatest standing Buddha statue in the world.
The present dwellers in this valley are proud of their pre-Islamic past. They talk of the old times when Bamiyan, the main link between central Asia and India, provided the main access to the Silk Road and was the trading centre for thousands of caravans. It was this prosperity that was responsible for the Buddha statues being hewn into the soft rock face with a complex system of steps, niches, balconies, meeting rooms, altar rooms with cupolas and dwelling quarters, all cut into the rock and nestling between the two colossal figures.
For hundreds of years the Bamiyan valley, lying in the Hindukutch, was one of the most important and attractive pilgrimage sites for practising Buddhists, a true global centre of Buddhism, a melting pot of cultures.
However, in the spring of 2001, Taliban leader Mullah Omar in a fatwa, gave the order to destroy the two Buddha statues. The world was up in arms.
Years of looting of Afghanistan’s cultural heritage and the religious mania of “God’s warriors” and its devastating consequences on the people of Afghanistan provoked little interest yet, all of a sudden, UNESCO hastily sent a special envoy to Kabul and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York offered to purchase and preserve the statues. But to no avail.
At the beginning of March 2001, the great Buddhas of Bamiyan were blown up by specialists belonging to the al-Qaeda terror organisation.