Behind the Buddhas of Bamiyan: the other side of Afghanistan
Isabella Cookson talks to the independent documentary maker, Phil Grabsky.
by Isabella Cookson
Monday 9th July 2012, 09:26 BST
In March 2001 the world stood in shock as the Taliban destroyed the 2,000 year- old Buddhas of Bamiyan. Award winning documentary maker, Phil Grabsky, tells a different story.
Living in the caves surrounding the Buddhas lives 8-year-old Mir and his family. Grabsky’s unique documentary “The Boy Mir” tracks the life of an ordinary Afghan boy over ten years: there are no patronising voiceovers, no special effects and the family speak straight to the camera.
The project began in 2002, when Grabsky arrived in Afghanistan intent on finding out about the people behind the news coverage that so often focuses on the military attacks. “Mir, in a funny sort of way, found me. He saw me filming on my first day in Bamiyan and lent into the camera. I thought I would be making a film about an adult male but actually in Afghanistan in 2002 the men were exhausted, depressed, broke, without work, without hope and therefore there was no story to drive this along.”
There is certainly a beautiful contrast in the films between the cheeky smile of the young boy and the cynical depression of his relatives who have seen better days.
“His brother’s narrative doesn’t change over the ten years, so the film would not have been as interesting had it followed an older person. Whereas we watch Mir grow from 8-18 and watch him physically change too. He at 17 looks like most 27 year olds, he has aged a lot. If Mir gets to 45 in that culture, he’ll be lucky. There were many adventures to be played out, I had no idea that he would end up working down a mine, ploughing fields and so forth. It was scary and exciting because I didn’t know how the story would work out.”
With his co-director, Shoaib Sharifi, a film-maker and Afghan national, Grabsky committed to going to Afghanistan each year for almost a decade. I wonder what it was like to film and live there during one of the most turbulent times in its history.
“I personally found it scary. In a funny way, it’s not so scary when you are there, it’s scary building up to it. Deciding when it’s safer to go: I have two small children and I am putting myself at risk. I must say, there are journalists who are doing this all the time. As a filmmaker I only have to spend a few weeks of the year in Afghanistan, nothing compared to someone who goes to Libya and stays there for months on end and is actively looking for those hotspots. That said, there is a difference between perceived risk and actual risk. The perceived risk of Afghanistan is very clear: you could be kidnapped, you could be captured by the Taliban and beheaded on film; this is the perceived risk that has some basis of truth. The actual risk is very hard to judge. More people die in Britain from bad driving than from terrorism. So you have to think realistically. Afghanistan is a wonderful country, full of interesting people, great food, they are very hospitable, but there are security issues you must take very seriously.”
Grabsky did experience some very near scrapes with the Taliban, “One time we made the mistake of driving at night back to Kabul in 2003. We ran into a Taliban roadblock and I did not want to be there, my thoughts were immediately back at home with my family. But I mean, Afghans are dealing with this every single day, I was flying immediately back to London and was leaving it all behind.”
In a documentary the question of how “real” the film is is an inevitable one: something that he himself was very self-conscious of. “Everything is a choice: you have to be careful about arguing for the reality of the situation. When I’m there, it’s my choice which direction I am pointing the camera, how I’m behaving off screen is affecting the characters, right down to the editing, the music, and in the case of Mir, the translation. All these things are creative or editorial choices. It boils down to the Grierson definition of documentary films that they are “the creative treatment of actuality”. Before you do anything you have to have a sense of what it is that you’re trying to achieve. Too often documentary filmmakers rely on access: I’ve got access to an aircraft carrier or to a hospital or something. That isn’t enough- what is it that you’re trying to achieve with that access?”
Grabsky describes the film as “the most important film I have made”, referring throughout the interview to our cultural need to probe deeper into issues often casually referred to in the media. “We as a society have now invested $900 billion in the war in Afghanistan. Many people have given life and limb in Afghanistan and for us in a way. How can you not be interested to know who the Afghan people are that this fighting is happening around and for? We unfortunately live in a culture of non-thinking, lots of people drift through life without really thinking about things and aren’t that interested in Afghanistan. Personally, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t be interested and if you are interested in Afghanistan then you must be interested in the Afghan people.”
The uncertainty surrounding the continued presence of British and American troops in Afghanistan has been a cause of political polemic. The current opinion seems favour withdrawal. “When people say, “Oh we’ve just got to get out of there, why do we care about the Afghan people? We just need to get the troops out.” I think it’s a selfish and naïve position, it’s much more complicated than that. You need to understand the situation before you can come to a decision on it. I watch Question Time, and I watch people talk about Afghanistan and they haven’t a clue.
“We are not persecuted here because we are of a particular religion or sex, we don’t think about it. But in Afghanistan being Shia or Hazara puts you at risk and there is nothing ignoble about us wanting to help Afghans live better lives. Much more importantly, we need to ask what is the best way to help? The answer, in my opinion is less focus on military and more focus on aid, more long term planning and less short term running around mountain ranges.
Phil Grabsky is an independent filmmaker and director of Seventh-art; find our more about his work at http://www.seventh-art.com/about.php.