In March 2001, in an ultimate gesture of defiance to the world, the Taliban blew up two massive, 1,500-year-old statues in the remote Bamiyantal area of Afghanistan, the tallest depictions of the Buddha anywhere.
Their demise and lingering aftermath grip the peripatetic Swiss director Christian Frei, who in ``The Giant Buddhas" roves from country to country -- Afghanistan, China, Canada, Switzerland, France, Qatar -- to gather perspectives that range from personal to political, archeological to scientific. An earnest on-again, off-again narration links the segments , and each, like a new set of eyes, reveals another aspect of the statues' fate.
Frei, whose ``War Photographer " (2001 ) received an Academy Award nomination, begins his film humbly, with the eyewitness account of Sayyed Mirza Hussain, a Bamiyan cave dweller who with his family lived in one of the 750 prayer grottoes hewn into the base of the cliff face, adjacent to the statues. Hussain saw the explosions. ``The Taliban had no idea how to blow things up properly," he claims, in one of the few episodes of humor. Also comical is the filmmaker's thwarted hunt at a Chinese theme park for a Bamiyan Buddha reproduction, which has either disappeared or has never been built, depending on who is interviewed.
Al Jazeera journalist Taysir Alony provides the film's most riveting material: an account of his journey posing as a member of the Taliban to secretly film the buddhas' destruction. The ethics of being a helpless bystander to get the death-defying scoop haunt him, and his charges of hypocrisy still ring true: The world united in protest to save the statues but ignored the humanitarian debacle in Afghanistan. (Alony was later sentenced by the Spanish courts to six years in prison for reputed ``collaboration" with Al Qaeda.)
The segments depicting archeologist Zémaryalaï Tarzi's search for a legendary, third, 300-meter ``sleeping Buddha," and a UNESCO team's project to reconstruct the buddhas from the rubble, both raise issues of authenticity and cultural heritage. But ``The Giant Buddhas" takes a wrong turn by following Toronto-based journalist and actress Nelofer Pazira, an Afghan emigre whose homecoming exudes self- aggrandizing drama. Her visit to Bamiyantal ends in absurd fantasy, with the statues inexplicably intact.
Any of these individual segments would make a fascinating 30-minute documentary. But connected as they are in ``The Giant Buddhas," overall unity is sacrificed for diversity. Frei's inquiry at times hits the mark but never quite carves out a solid theme, even as Buddha's lesson -- ``Everything changes, nothing remains" -- seems more powerful than ever.
Ethan Gilsdorf can be reached at email@example.com.