Saving Mes Aynak is a documentary about, well, saving the archaeological site of Mes Aynak, a site 25 miles southeast of Kabul, before a Chinese company puts a copper mine right next to it. The film came out in 2014 and has since won 19 awards from various film festivals and organizations. It’s quite a beautiful documentary, with a lot of good shots of the landscape of Afghanistan. At the same time, I found it somewhat difficult to get into, for reasons I will explain.
Mes Aynak is an archaeological site most known for the plethora of Buddhist artifacts found within it. In the centuries prior to the rise of Islam, and during the earlier Islamic period, Afghanistan served as something of a conduit for Buddhism, connecting Buddhism’s land or origin, India, with China, where it would be quite popular. In fact, for many Chinese monks, Afghanistan was the destination for pilgrimages and a place to learn proper Buddhist practice. This documentary, however, does not so much focus on Mes Aynak in antiquity as on the state of the site in the early 2010’s. This is because of a lease that the China Metallurgical Group (MCC) was given to mine copper around Mes Aynak, putting the site in danger.
This sets the stage for a very fraught salvage excavation. Salvage excavations are fairly common when major construction or similar projects occur. For example, when the Atatürk Dam was constructed in southern Turkey, a group of archaeologists were working around the clock to excavate and preserve the Zeugma mosaics, a group of mosaics apparently dating to the Hellenistic period (if you’re ever in Gaziantep, I’d highly recommend checking out the Zeugma Museum. Maybe wait till the security situation is a bit better, though). Saving Mes Aynak largely follows the Afghan archaeologist Qadir Temori in his work with his team to help preserve the site. Along with Qadir’s team, is a French team (or maybe two French teams, I couldn’t sort it out), and one of my undergrad advisors who seems to show up to have conversations with people at some guy’s house and then leave when American civilians were asked to leave the country. On the other side, somewhat, are the Chinese miners, though they get less screen time than the others.
The real resonance of the documentary, for me at least, is the conflict between the two archaeological teams. They have shots of the Afghan team doing flawed, but earnest archaeology. Their methods are not ideal, largely due to the historic lack of good archaeological training for scholars in Afghanistan, but they are careful to not damage the artifacts and they take note of where major architecture was found. The French team, on the other hand, brings in a giant backhoe to excavate. When confronted by Qadir, they claim that the operator was told to stop if he hit any stone. For those not familiar with excavations, you aren’t going to feel anything you’re blasting through with a big-ass machine. I mean, maybe you could if you found a fortification wall or something, but probably not if you found a small stupa or something.
Throughout the movie, the Qadir is shown talking to various people in the surrounding area about how they feel about the mine and the archaeological sites. In general, people were not huge fans of a Chinese company extracting resources from the country and possibly threatening their villages. I found this part interesting not only because it showed the opinions of actual Afghans, but also, if I’m not mistaken, some of the individuals interviewed were speaking Dari or another Persian dialect, while others were speaking a Turkic one. I’m not entirely sure on this one, though.
I believe that this documentary is very important. It is important to make the international community informed of and invested in the archaeology of Afghanistan in order to protect it. Archaeologists in any situation only have so much power to protect cultural heritage, and this is especially true in countries where antiquities laws are not very firmly established or enforced. It also provides an informative look into the landscape of Afghanistan, which I think many people don’t really understand.
However, I didn’t find it particularly compelling as a whole. Again, it was great in many ways, but it doesn’t have that much emotional resonance. This is due to the lack of a narrative. In all fairness, this very true to life. Life has no narrative and there are no heroes and no villains. At the same time, narrative draws the viewer in and allows them to make sense of what’s happening. In this documentary, a lot of things are happening, but there isn’t really a firm narrative created.
Ultimately, I found this documentary to be both visually beautiful and important. While I had difficulty finding a place to take hold emotionally, this could be important in its own way. It presents all parties with minimal commenting and without creating obvious antagonists. I still think it’s worth a watch, if only to learn a bit about Afghanistan and its archaeology. The archaeologist drama is also kind of fun.