More than 2,500 years ago, Buddhists established a sprawling monastery complex in the barren desert just 25 miles southeast of present-day Kabul, Afghanistan, attracted to the remote location because of its rich copper deposits. Mes Aynak, the once vibrant home to hundreds of Buddha statues and Bronze Age treasures, fell into ruin for centuries.
The former spiritual center rose again to prevalence thousands of years later when the disregarded ruins became an Al-Qaeda training ground, playing host to high-ranking members of the terrorist organization beginning in 1999. Eight years later, in 2007, the red-brown metal that first caught the Buddhists’ eyes brought an international giant onto the scene.
Now, a Chinese mining company plans to dig beneath Mes Aynak, into a copper mine worth as much as $100 billion. To do so, the industrial giant will have to destroy the ancient Buddhist ruins, transforming the site into an open pit within the next few years.
“Somehow this site is persevering despite all the odds being against it,” said filmmaker Brent Huffman, who is currently making a documentary about the uncertain future of Mes Aynak. “The site has been able to draw people in and get them to sort of fall in love with it and risk their lives to preserve it. There’s this kind of magic to the site.”
Huffman’s upcoming film, The Buddhas of Aynak, tells the story of the archaeologists, both local and international, who are risking their lives to excavate the site before it collapses under the weight of foreign industry. The film explores unpaid workers that sometimes dig up landmines instead of relics, archaeologists that receive text-message death threats from Al Qaeda, statue recoveries executed with garden tools, and the value of an endangered heritage site comparable to Peru’s Macchu Picchu in terms of its scale and possible insights into the past.
Current estimates suggest that only 10 percent of the massive Mes Aynak site has been excavated, with the rest remaining either underground or unexplored due to lack of manpower. But the possible positive economic impact for the impoverished and war-torn Afghanistan may outweigh desires to preserve its heritage. And for their part, the Chinese Metallurgical Group may actually have been unaware of the Mes Aynak ruins when it first bid on the mining lease and set its wheels in motion.
Huffman revisits a familiar theme in this new documentary: the dramatic tension of native cultures grappling with economic needs and international agendas. In one recent film, The Colony, Huffman examined the interactions of local Africans in Senegal with the sudden influx of Chinese businesses. But documenting the feverish work at Mes Aynak moved Huffman into unfamiliar territory.
“I usually try to hold up a mirror, to reveal things as they actually are,” Huffman said. “I’ve always shied away from advocacy films, from ever bringing an agenda into the work. But things are different with Mes Aynak. I want my film to help save the site.”
Hear more about the project in the audio of the interview with Huffman, including his thoughts about working in Afghanistan, the spiritual resonance of Mes Aynak, and the decision to put his own life at risk to save the Buddhist heritage site.
Huffman has another visit planned to continue filming on location this August, and is actively fundraising to complete the film. He is also presenting at the upcoming Mes Aynak event hosted by the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage (ARCH) in Washington, D.C., June 4-5.
“I hope that in the end this film isn’t just a visual record of this incredible thing that’s now gone forever,” Huffman said. “I hope that we can actually join forces and the international community will get involved to save this site.”
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