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The Giant Buddhas

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The Giant Buddhas


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.

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Running Time: 95 min.
Subject(s): Arts and Culture, Asian Studies, Conflicts, Current Affairs, Ethnography, History, Investigative Journalism, Middle Eastern Studies see all »
Language(s): English
Producer(s): Christian Frei
Production Company: Christian Frei Filmproductions


  • Film could almost be retitled "The Buddha Effect," as, rather than just focusing on the history of the statues or their destruction, Frei uses them as a destination point for people's personal journeys, intercut throughout the pic.
  • A subdued, indeed Zen-like rumination on the things that war spoils can be seen in "The Giant Buddhas", Christian Frei's contemplation of the huge mountain-carved effigies in Bamian, Afghanistan, that the (literally) iconoclastic autocrats of the Taliban blew to pieces six months before 9/11. The film moves gracefully and gravely from the 7th century, when the Chinese monk Xuanzang made a pilgrimage stop in Bamiyan, to the 21st, in which a French archaeologist leads a dig to find the legendary Sleeping Buddha in that same scarred valley.
  • At the height of its speed, the film takes on the feel of an Indiana Jones-style archaeological thriller.
  • Recent seasons have led us into a golden age of ambitious documentaries, and "The Giant Buddhas" takes its place within this movement. "The Giant Buddhas" places us at a fascinating intersection of politics, religion and culture. Frei's account ranges from the horrifying to the comic, and in the process delivers as much fresh information as I've ever absorbed from a single documentary.
  • An engrossing, beautifully photographed documentary from Oscar-nominated director Christian Frei (War Photographer) weaves together tales from distant past and conflict-fraught present to explore the meaning of the Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan.
    Combining several narrative lines, Frei's beautifully crafted film uses the Bamiyan statues as a starting point on a fascinating journey exploring the boundaries between spirituality and religious fanaticism, the ancient and the modern and the local and the global. Frei weaves together a colourful and moving tapestry that ultimately reflects the Buddhist saying: "Everything changes, nothing is permanent." With some excellent photography by Peter Indergand, this monumental, yet quietly contemplative – and at times very funny – film is as much a quest for questions, as a search for answers.
    With the destruction of the giant Buddhas as his springboard, Oscar-nominated filmmaker Christian Frei (War Photographer) has crafted a luminous cinematic tapestry that entwines multiple narrative threads. Stunningly photographed by Peter Indergand, this thought-provoking documentary reveals the consequences of religious fanaticism as it exposes the hypocrisy of global indignation. With pulsing immediacy, Frei essentially collapses time. He retraces the steps of a Chinese monk who visited the Buddhas centuries ago, juxtaposing that journey with his own trip to Afghanistan and that of a modern-day woman from Toronto, who fulfills a lifelong dream to visit Bamiyan, important place for her father. The Giant Buddhas is a stirring example of the power of cinema to enlighten as it defies the boundaries of culture and time
    David Courier
    The filmmaker has taken a recent hot, politically sensitive and highly symbolic news event and given us a thoughtful, well researched and beautifully filmed analysis of the complexities of the issue and cultural perspectives that stand behind the surface of the TV news.
    In these fantastic Oriental landscapes, the director explores, with great sensitivity and perceptiveness, issues around the relationship of mankind to its history, to its spirituality, to violence and terror. He avoids the drama of the event in order to seek out, via the testimony of his interviewees, an account of life and feelings, doubts, sadness, fear and hope, expressed through the prism of the destroyed statues.

Festival & Awards

  • Leipzig DOK Festival, Germany - 2005
    Silver Dove for Best Documentary
  • Art-TV, Switzerland - 2005
    Kulturperle for One of Five Best Swiss Films
  • Locarno International Film Festival, Switzerland - 2005
  • Toronto International Film Festival, Canada - 2005
  • Vancouver International Film Festival, Canada - 2005
  • Vienna International Film Festival, Austria - 2005
  • Valladolid International Film Festival, Spain - 2005
  • CPH DOX International Documentary Filmfestival, Denmark - 2005
  • Sundance Film Festival, USA - 2006
    Nominated for Grand Jury Prize for World Cinema - Documentary
  • Swiss Film Prize, Switzerland - 2006
    Nominated for Swiss Film Prize for Best Documentary
  • Dokufest Prizren, Kosovo - 2006
    Award for Best Feature Documentary
  • Tahoe/Reno International Film Festival, USA - 2006
    Best of the Fest - Documentary
  • Banff Mountain Film Festival, Canada - 2006
    Special Jury Mention
  • International Leipzig Festival for Documentary, Germany - 2006
    Silver Dove
  • Trento Film Festival, Italy - 2006
    Silver Gentian
  • Solothurn Film Festival, Switzerland - 2006
  • Filmfestival Max Ophüls Preis, Germany - 2006
  • Portland International Film Festival, USA - 2006
  • Bangkok International Film Festival, Thailand - 2006
  • One World International Film Festival, Czech Republic - 2006
  • Thessaloniki Documentary Festival, Greece - 2006
  • Environmental Film Festival Washington D.C., USA - 2006
  • Bermuda International Film Festival, UK - 2006
  • It's all true - International Documentary Film Festival, Brazil - 2006
  • Florida Film Festival, USA - 2006
  • European Independent Film Festival, France - 2006
  • DocAviv International Documentary Festival, Israel - 2006
  • Istanbul Film Festival, Turkey - 2006
  • Singapore International Film Festival - 2006
  • Independent Film Festival Boston, USA - 2006
  • Nashville Film Festival, USA - 2006
  • San Francisco International Film Festival, USA - 2006
  • Trento Film Festival, Italy - 2006
  • DOK.FEST, Germany - 2006
  • Planete Doc Review, Poland - 2006
  • Catalonia Environmental Film Festival, Spain - 2006
  • Durban International Film Festival, South Africa - 2006
  • Maui Film Festival, USA - 2006
  • Ecofilms, Greece - 2006
  • Dokufest Prizren, Kosovo - 2006

additional materials

Distribution Company:

  • Director's comment

    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.

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