Sunday, August 14, 2011

DocuWeeks New York ’11: The Boy Mir

His playground was the rubble left from horrific intolerance. Eight year-old (approximately) Mir’s family were forced from their home village, taking refuge among the caves of Bamiyan, where once the majestic Buddhas stood until the Taliban blasted them off the face of the cliff. Grimly fascinated by the act of state-sponsored vandalism, classical music documentarian Phil Grabsky headed to Bamiyan after the fall of the Taliban, promptly meeting Mir. The young boy’s star power resulted in the documentary The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan. Yet to his credit, Grabsky did not settle for drive-by coverage, instead committing to a Seven-Up approach, revisited Mir once a year for a decade. Those periodic trips were eventually shaped into The Boy Mir—Ten Years in Afghanistan (trailer here), which screens during the Oscar-qualifying DocuWeeks 2011 in New York.

While ostensibly documenting Mir’s development, Grabsky also charts the progress and regression of sort-of post-Taliban Afghanistan. Indeed, one can see both happening simultaneously, as the basic living standards of Mir’s village improve dramatically, while the security situation deteriorates rather steadily. Returning home from Bamiyan, Mir is torn between the long benefits of an education and his family’s short term economic needs. A mining accident effectively ended his father’s working days, forcing Mir to share the breadwinning duties with his older half-brother Khushdel.

Even by local standards, where necessity trumps luxuries like love and affection, Mir’s family tree is a bit complicated. As part of a grand bargain, Mir’s father offered Khushdel his daughter’s hand in marriage in return for that of the younger man’s mother. Regardless of what that makes them to each other, Mir’s close relationship with Khushdel is one of the more endearing aspects of the film.

Though Grabsky tried his level best, problematic gender attitudes largely prevented the participation of Mir’s mother and particularly that of his still relatively young sister. Yet, her near absence speaks volumes, none of it edifying. However, it underscores the harsh realities of Afghanistan. To a large extent, it remains in the middle ages.

Indeed, America and our allies have not been involved in a rebuilding effort, but an attempt to build a functioning country from scratch. That we can see demonstrable increases in construction and electrification over ten years ought to be most apparent to those who witnessed it first-hand. Unfortunately, over the years, Mir appears to absorb some of the virulent anti-western prejudices the Taliban prey on. In accordance with his strictly observational approach, Grabsky never directly challenges this evolution of mind-set, at least not on camera. As a result, Boy leaves viewers rather pessimistic for the future of Afghanistan.

While Grabsky simply records Mir and his family going about their daily business sans commentary, the film’s yearly progression keeps the pace chugging along nicely. It also holds no illusions regarding the nature of the Taliban. No small undertaking, Boy’s time-lapse portrait of Afghanistan might challenge some preconceived notions of the war, including inside the White House. One of the better films of the first week of DocuWeeks New York, Boy screens though Thursday (8/18) at the IFC Center.