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The Giant Buddhas, April 29

49th San Francisco International Film Festival at PFA

Saturday, April 29, 2006
3:45 p.m. The Giant Buddhas
Christian Frei (Switzerland, 2005)

In 632 A.D., the giant Buddhas of Afghanistan's Bamiyan Valley were the center of the Buddhist world, drawing thousands of monks and pilgrims. Over 1,400 years later, Afghanistan's Taliban abruptly and unconscionably blew them up. Oscar-nominated Swiss writer/director/editor Christian Frei (War Photographer, 2001) has created a cinematic meditation on the Bamiyan Buddhas—and other giant Buddhas in China—using an epistolary style to explore cultural diversity and the West's ignorance of the Islamic East. He bolsters his commentary with the journal writings of a Chinese monk who stopped at Bamiyan in 635 A.D. on his trek to India over the Silk Road. What develops is a fascinating and thoughtful investigation into the very purpose of monuments and what they should represent: An ethnic Hazara whose home was a Bamiyan cave equates watching the Buddhas' destruction with witnessing an execution. In Switzerland, a process called photogrammetry creates virtual reconstructions of the Buddhas, mapped as computer images using existing fragments from the statues. An Afghan archaeologist searches for a third giant Buddha and wonders why the West failed to stop the looting of Afghanistan's cultural treasures. Finally, an Afghan writer returns to Bamiyan, passing through a barren winter landscape of gutted buildings and towering peaks. Extreme closeups give the film an intimate character, and haunting music by several composers, including Philip Glass, deepens its resonance. And when filming his fellow commentators, Frei often chooses not to use location sound, instead adding their personal observations as voiceovers, strengthening the film's reflective and appropriately Buddhist style.

—Sid Hollister

• Photographed by Peter Indergand. (95 mins)