Mes Aynak, one of Afghanistan’s most important cultural treasures, may be destroyed by the end of 2015.
My documentary, Saving Mes Aynak, which deals with the imminent threat facing the ancient city of Mes Aynak in Afghanistan, will have its premiere at the prestigious Festival International de Programmes Audiovisuels (FIPA) in France at the end of January. The event rarely accepts films made by American directors, and the film features criticism of French involvement at the archaeology site. The premiere at FIPA demonstrates the global importance of the issue.
Saving Mes Aynak had its world premiere in November at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), the largest documentary film festival in the world, where it was screened six times to enthusiastic sold-out crowds. Many of those at the festival had never heard of Mes Aynak and were desperate to help save the site by signing the official petition or getting involved in other ways to spread awareness.
During IDFA, I also participated in an expert panel at the University of Amsterdam, where many Afghan college students and experts attended. At this event, Stephen Carter of Global Witness, an environmental advocacy nongovernmental organization (NGO), revealed that there is significant ongoing looting at Mes Aynak. I was surprised and shocked to hear this, even though I had noticed that security at the archaeological site had been ineffective and solely focused on preventing Taliban attacks — they were looking for bombs and guns, not 2,000-year-old Buddhist artifacts. There was also no oversight of the military’s operations. A contact of mine at another Kabul-based NGO told me that some local and foreign archaeologists have even been responsible for a bit of the looting as well. Global Witness and I, as well as other NGOs, are looking into this distressing issue to see what can be done.
In addition to this looting, the ancient city of Mes Aynak will likely be completely destroyed later this year. A Chinese state-owned copper mining company, the China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC), is planning on razing the 5,000-year-old archaeological site, which encompasses hundreds of Buddha statues and dozens of fragile temples, to mine for an estimated $100 billion of copper. Support for the Chinese copper mine has intensified since Ashraf Ghani took over as president of Afghanistan in September 2014 and vowed to push a pro-mining agenda. There is supposedly $3 trillion-worth of natural resources in the country. Despite massive corruption and appalling environmental and human rights issues, many view the extraction industry as a magical cure for Afghanistan’s woes.
President Ghani traveled to Beijing in October 2014 to discuss the Mes Aynak mining project with the Chinese government. Two representatives from the Afghan Taliban also flew to China in November to discuss security and cooperation with government-owned industries like MCC.
Since the filming of Saving Mes Aynak commenced, Qadir Temori, the lead archaeologist and main character in the documentary, was promoted to director of the Archaeology Department, which operates under the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture. He also welcomed his third child, Moslem, into the world. Temori has vowed to continue excavations at Mes Aynak for as long as possible. However, he is increasingly frustrated by the lack of government funding for archaeology, the continued delays in payments for Afghan archaeologists and workers — Afghan archaeologists went on strike in mid-2014 over yet another three month delay in salary payment — and general gross mismanagement of the project by the Afghan government.
Temori lost most of the foreign archaeologists working at the site back in 2013, when security threats prompted foreign embassies to withdraw their citizens. Many of them were foreign experts who provided essential support and training for Afghans to carry out this massive rescue excavation project. Temori is now forced to work with a skeleton crew of mainly Afghan and Tajik archaeologists and very limited funding.
In an attempt to help in a bigger way than just spreading awareness and signing a petition, the Saving Mes Aynak team in Chicago will be launching a poster sale of legendary Japanese artist Rima Fujita’s breathtaking painting, Save Mes Aynak, created specifically for the documentary. All proceeds from the sale will go directly to the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture to benefit the excavation of Mes Aynak and other threatened archaeology sites around Afghanistan.
Making the Film
When I began doing research in 2011 for what would eventually become the documentary Saving Mes Aynak, many people advised me to stop. Experts at the World Bank and the US Embassy in Kabul told me that plans to pave over Mes Aynak to make room for a copper mine would be a good thing for Afghanistan. They told me this topic was a very bad idea for a documentary and pressured me not to make the film. They went on to aggressively dissuade others from working on the project.
So I went on to make Saving Mes Aynak alone. I was a crew of one who worked with a wonderful Afghan fixer/translator who helped me travel quickly and safely to where I needed to be. Though the Afghan archaeologists were very gracious with their time, I had very limited access to Mes Aynak. I had to get permission from the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture and the Kabul police every time I wanted to visit the site. They would only allow me to be there for a few hours a day and tried to limit what I could film. I was never allowed to spend the night due to constant threats from the Taliban. I would travel to Mes Aynak in a rented Kabul taxi over desert and mountainous terrain at great risk of being kidnapped or crossing landmines hidden in the road. But I was determined to tell this story at any cost.
There soon came a glimmer of hope. After completing the majority of filming and making a rough cut, I eventually found tremendous international interest and support for the project. To raise awareness about the imminent destruction of Mes Aynak, I wrote about the site in major articles for CNN, The New York Times, PBS Newshour, Asia Society, Tricycle Magazine and other media organizations. I made a Facebook page for the film that quickly amassed tens of thousands of followers. I lectured on Mes Aynak around the world.
I launched a Kickstarter campaign independently and raised money to continue editing and filming, as well as to give back to the Afghan archaeologists. I was able to donate $3,500 to the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture to finally buy Afghan archaeologists several computers and digital cameras. After the campaign, international support continued to build all over the world from Sri Lanka to Australia to China. A petition backed by this campaign was able to garner over 75,000 signatures. Due to this international support, enough presure was put on the Afghan government to temporarily delay mining for one year — a huge victory.
I was eventually awarded grants from the MacArthur Foundation, Global Heritage Fund, The Buffet Center and Northwestern University to finally finish the film. In 2013, the documentary production house, Kartemquin Films, makers of Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, got involved to assist with outreach and the global distribution. Julia Reichert, director of Seeing Red and A Lion in the House, and Zak Piper, producer of The Interrupters and Life Itself, joined the project and have worked tirelessly to ensure that Saving Mes Aynak reaches an international audience.
It is my hope that this mounting international support will help save the priceless cultural heritage at Mes Aynak and set the precedent that culture is more valuable than industry. I hope Saving Mes Aynak can also be a tool used to educate local audiences about the terrible risks involved with the mining industry. First-rate oversight and regulation must be in place to protect cultural heritage, local people and the environment. Otherwise, Afghanistan — one of the richest cultural destinations in the world — will be home to nothing but massive toxic craters.
About the Film
Saving Mes Aynak is ultimately a story of hope. It is a film that is optimistic for a better future for Afghanistan; a country plagued by over 30 years of perpetual war yet containing one of the richest cultural histories in the world. The documentary is dedicated to Afghan archaeologists like Temori who face constant threats from the Taliban, private industry and their own government to preserve this ancient archaeological site. Saving Mes Aynak is not only a reflection of these courageous efforts to protect and preserve invaluable cultural heritage, but also represents a voice for the voiceless — a vehicle where Afghans can speak out on camera against the injustices happening all around them. Now these passionate, courageous voices will finally be heard.
I created Saving Mes Aynak to be a catalyst for change. My hope is the documentary can actually save Mes Aynak by rallying international support to stop the destruction of this cultural treasure. Mes Aynak, which is 5,000 years old and covers more than 500,000 square meters, is truly one of the unseen wonders of the world. Comparable to Pompeii and Machu Picchu, these sprawling ruins feature hundreds of life-size or larger Buddha statues, dozens of temples, hidden caverns and thousands of priceless artifacts like birch-bark manuscripts, gold and copper coins, jewelry and intricate hand painted murals. Mes Aynak is grand, awe-inspiring and has a magical ability to draw people in — to get people from all over the world to fall in love with its mysterious beauty.
Archaeologists estimate that only 10% of Mes Aynak has been discovered — only the tip of an enormous iceberg. Who knows what still remains hidden, buried under a mountain of sand and earth? At the heart of the Silk Road, Mes Aynak was a melting pot of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures where travelers and pilgrims from many different religions could trade their wares, exchange cultural perspectives and even worship together at the same location. Ironically, Mes Aynak was also one of the earliest know copper mining centers in the world. Here, the precious material was mined and smelted using ancient techniques used in coin production and in the creation of ancient Buddhist artifacts.
If Mes Aynak were to be tragically destroyed, Saving Mes Aynak would be the only visual record that this wondrous city ever existed. As a civilized society, we cannot let that happen. When the towering Buddhas of Bamiyan were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, the world gasped in horror. People shouted, “Why did this happen?” and “Why didn’t we stop it?” Mes Aynak will also be obliterated unless we take immediate action. We have the power to stop this senseless destruction. On the official website, we have listed ways for people to help. It is my duty both as a filmmaker and as a global citizen to ensure this film reaches a global audience and will spark a movement to pressure the Afghan government to stop mining and save this incredible site for future generations.
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Photo Credit: © Brent Huffman