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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Quirky film of Afghan boy’s coming of age in a time of war

15 Nov 2011 15:08
Source: Alertnet // Emma Batha

Afghan boys play soccer in front of the gaping niche where a giant Buddha statue used to stand in the town of Bamiyan some 240 km northwest of Kabul, April 13, 2007. The Taliban destroyed two of the statues in 2001. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

By Emma Batha

LONDON (AlertNet) - When documentary maker Phil Grabsky was filming in Afghanistan shortly after the fall of the Taliban, a small boy with a cheeky grin and brightly coloured hat leant into the shot. His name was Mir.

Grabsky was captivated. Over the next decade he returned numerous times to film Mir, his family and community, watching as the boy turned into a man – all against the backdrop of a country at war.

The result is The Boy Mir, a surprisingly humorous film which gives a very different view of Afghanistan to the one conveyed in television news footage.

At the start Mir is eight years old and living among 200 refugee families in caves alongside the ruins of the colossal Buddhas of Bamiyan which were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.

“Who would have thought we would end up living in a cave eating grass?” comments his mother Fatima.

Despite their extreme poverty, Mir has big ambitions: “I want to be a headteacher … or president,” he says.

When his family fails to get one of the houses aid workers are building for the cave-dwellers, they return to their home village in the north where they rebuild their war-damaged house.

Mir starts school and gets good grades. But his father Abdul is ailing and Mir sometimes has to miss class to plough fields with two donkeys he calls “my jet plane and my motorbike”.

By his early teens he is working in a coal mine. His grades slip. It’s a dangerous job, not least because the lamps are known to explode and kill people. But the ever cheery Mir retains his irrepressible spirit – even breaking into song and dance as he works.

Despite the unrelenting grimness there is much humour. In one scene Mir and his friends are seen jumping into a tank of brown water. They blow into their wet shorts to inflate them so that they can float.

In another scene his much older step-brother Khoshdel stands on a desolate mountain top waving a mobile phone around. He has climbed for two hours simply to get a signal, but he can’t pick one up. “I’ll just have to go to another mountain,” he comments.


At 15 Mir is still shovelling coal for a pittance and has pretty much dropped out of school.

Abdul and Khoshdel urge him to continue studying if he doesn’t want to end up poor and exploited. But Mir is not sure. His work at the mine helps him fulfil his dream of buying a motorbike – or at least a share in one that promptly breaks down.

But by the end of the film he seems to be heading back to education.

Speaking after a recent screening at London’s Frontline Club, Grabsky said he had read that the spread of the mobile phone in Afghanistan is encouraging a new interest in school because if you are illiterate you can’t text.

Although Mir’s home region now appears free of fighting, the conflict continues to affect people’s outlook and their prospects for bettering themselves.

By his late teens Mir’s ambition is no longer to be a teacher - he simply wants to survive the war.

Towards the end of the film there is much bemusement when foreign troops turn up with a few notebooks as goodwill gifts. The locals are taken aback by the physical size of the soldiers, but also notice that they seem quite fearful.

They are unimpressed by the gift. “We can’t solve our problems with four notebooks,” comments one villager.

“The Boy Mir” is an update on Grabsky’s first film about Mir, “The Boy who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan”, which followed the family for a year in 2002.

Grabsky describes Mir as an “ordinary boy living at an extraordinary time”.

“There are elements of Mir’s character to be optimistic about,” he adds. “But Afghanistan is extremely bleak and it gets bleaker all the time. I think it is worse now than at any time since…2002.”

Half the population is under 18. They do not want to fight, they just want food, an education and work, but there is no job market, Grabsky says.

He suspects Mir will still be living in the village in five years’ time, but adds that the Chinese may well eventually buy the mine and move Chinese workers in.

However, Mir is more fortunate than his peers in one respect.

The production company has teamed up with Save the Children and Afghan Aid to set up a fund. Donations will go towards Mir’s education, Afghan Aid’s community work in northern Afghanistan and Save the Children’s rural education programmes.

The Trust

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