This month, Veverka Bros. speaks with documentary filmmaker Brent Huffman about his new film, The Buddhas of Mes Aynak. Huffman’s film explores how the site of an ancient Buddhist city in Afghanistan called Mes Aynak is being threatened by copper mining in the region, and how a team of archaeologists is fighting to protect and preserve the site.
What is Mes Aynak?
Mes Aynak means little copper well in Dari. It was once an ancient Buddhist city were Buddhists worshiped and mined for copper simultaneously. It was a melting pot of cultures as a major location on the Silk Road where pilgrims from all over Asia and the Middle East met and exchanged ideas.
Yes, the site has been known about by locals, obviously and has been written about by French archeologists since the 1960s. Sadly, Mes Aynak has been left unprotected and has been heavily looted for decades – thus the missing heads and chests in my photos.
How do mining interests in the region threaten the archaeological sites there?
China Metallurgical Group Corporation (MCC) wants to mine in the cheapest and easiest fashion – open-pit style. Mining like this would not only destroy Mes Aynak but the entire mountain range. The environment would be permanently poisoned with toxic radioactive waste. No one could ever live in this area again. There is also a major threat to the water supply in the area.
What got you involved in documenting this struggle to protect the site?
One misconception I often get is that I have some agenda in this fight. I do not. I am an independent filmmaker and professor at Northwestern University who loves Afghanistan and the Afghan people. I fell in love with Mes Aynak the first time I saw the ancient city. I felt I would be an accessory to the crime of destroying the cultural heritage and environment of Logar province if I didn’t try to spread the word about this tragedy to anyone who would listen. And I am not anti-China either – my wife is actually Chinese. Any mining venture with no oversight and no regulation will end in disaster in any country by any owner. I have to say I am anti-mining at Mes Aynak. I want to see the site fully preserved and become a tourist attraction like the Bamiyan Buddhas.
What ways are you working to protect the Mes Aynak site both in terms of your film and any other outreach or direct action?
Our official petition with [over] 73,000 signatures was submitted to Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. My campaign donated 10% of our Kickstarter to Afghan archaeologists to purchase computers and digital cameras to better document discoveries found at Mes Aynak.
[My] awareness campaign has reached thousands with print and video stories published in many mainstream publications like CNN, the New York Times, PBS Newshour, The Diplomat, NPR, Foreign Policy, Tricycle Magazine, [and others.]
Have you been in contact with the Chinese government or MCC – what’s their position?
Yes, MCC is interested in making money like any company. A big part of the blame must come down on the Afghan government and the World Bank for approving a contract without regulation safeguards in place.
Are you approaching this issue more as a filmmaker or an activist?
My documentary is more of a neutral journalistic prospective witnessing these events as they unfold in front of the camera. My awareness campaign is separate from the film and is more activism advocating for the full protection of Mes Aynak and the surrounding area.
What are your hopes for the future of the Mes Aynak site, and do you think they can be achieved?
I am fighting for the full preservation of Mes Aynak. And I do think that is possible, but locals in Logar province must see profits and must be included in the whole process, otherwise there would be a backlash. Violence in the area at the MCC site and Mes Aynak is due to locals being lied to and tricked into giving away their villages (some with over 500 years of history) to MCC to be demolished to make way for this mine. Many locals are now homeless, jobless and very angry.
What groups or organizations have supported protecting the site, and have they supported the production of the film itself?
The Afghan Ministry of Culture archaeology department and DAFA have been the biggest supporters of Mes Aynak that I witnessed.
The Global Heritage Fund, Northwestern University, the Asia Society and the Buffet Center at Northwestern University have supported my documentary. Though the biggest financial support came from my Kickstarter campaign.
Yes, as far as I know this is the first time anyone used Kickstarter to save an archaeology site. Since the success of this project, many others have followed in this project’s footsteps to use crowdsourcing to save cultural heritage. It is very exciting.
I was doing the Kickstarter alone, which I would not recommend. You really need a support team to run a successful project. In terms of raising money, I really had to tap into the core niche audience that cares about saving an ancient Buddhist city – and that turned out to be Buddhists here and in other Buddhist countries like Thailand and Sri Lanka.
The most rewarding part of the Kickstarter was giving a little over 10% of the funds raised back to the Afghan archaeology department under the Ministry of Culture. These archaeologists have risked their lives to preserve Mes Aynak, and these funds were used to finally buy them laptops and digital cameras to be able to better document the discoveries at Mes Aynak.
What have been the biggest challenges you have faced while working on this film?
This film was nothing but challenges, from the extreme danger of traveling to the site (I have two kids at home) to the unwillingness of anyone to talk to me on camera at first.
When and where will people be able to see the film?
Anyone wanting to donate to this important project can still do so here.