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The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan

Focusing on a refugee family temporarily living in caves that had housed 1,600-year-old Buddhist art -- until it was destroyed by the Taliban three years ago -- doc is a fine, human-scaled portrait of an Afghanistan reeling from more than two decades of upheaval. Should attract fest and broadcast interest in various territories.

Focusing on a refugee family temporarily living in caves that had housed 1,600-year-old Buddhist art — until it was destroyed by the Taliban three years ago — “The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan” is a fine, human-scaled portrait of an Afghanistan reeling from more than two decades of upheaval. Beautifully photographed by helmer Phil Grabsky, involving docu feature should attract fest and broadcast interest in various territories, with an outside chance of limited theatrical play.

Pic begins with news footage of the March 2001 event that stirred outrage worldwide: The nation’s ruling Taliban dynamiting its leading tourist attraction, having deemed the world’s tallest stone statues offensive to Islam. But with the caves that had housed those and other ancient artworks now empty, refugees from other parts of the war-torn country are drawn here, figuring primitive shelter is better than none at all.

First met giving a tour of the caves’ scorched interiors — his new playground — is 8-year-old Mir, whose family wound up here after fleeing their village. Mir is a bright, antic, irrepressible lad who delights in taking charge of the filmmaking crew. He seems unfazed by domestic squabbles and general hard times, having no memory of better days.

Eventually, however, it is apparent that the constant instability has had an impact on Mir, fostering an aggressive, bullying streak that worries his parents.

Not that they lack other things to worry about: Avoiding starvation and staying warm (or just alive) during the frozen winter are top of the list. Care-worn well beyond her 40-odd years, mom nags avalanche-injured dad for being a useless provider; he, in turn, takes his frustrations out on a hapless son-in-law. But there’s simply no work here for either of them. Like everyone else, the family squeaks by, bartering for what they need.

Shot over a year and divided into four seasonal chapters, pic regards its principal figures with considerable affection, eking character humor from a context that easily might have been portrayed in strictly miserable terms.

There’s no question the situation is grim. But the personalities are engaging, while occasional intrusions by the outside world into this remote spot offer both rays of hope and bureaucratic absurdism.

Officials cruise into town with large entourages, announcing sweeping new programs, but real progress is slower and spottier. (In the end, the family is denied new housing here because they’re “not needy enough,” and are instead moved back to their original village.)

Most interviewed bitterly decry the destruction wrought nationwide by the Taliban. There’s cautious optimism toward U.S. efforts at reconstruction, though by this point, the attitude toward all nonresidents is summed up by one old man’s song: “Careful, careful, you foreigner, you may go to hell…”

Vet TV docmeister Grabsky’s often gorgeous color landscape photography is a major plus, as are Phil Reynolds’ deft editing and Dimitri Tchamouroff’s haunting score, which makes use of indigenous instruments.

The Boy Who Plays on the Buddhas of Bamiyan

England - Afghanistan

Production: A Seventh Art Prods. presentation. Produced by Amanda Wilkie. Executive producer, Kim Peat. Directed by Phil Grabsky.

Crew: Camera (color), Grabsky; editor, Phil Reynolds; original music, Dimitri Tchamouroff; sound, Kimmy Sekul. Reviewed at San Francisco Film Festival, April 21, 2004. Running time: 95 MIN.

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