Saving Mes Aynak is a film I believed in so deeply I repeatedly risked my life to make it: the story of a true-life Afghan Indiana Jones risking everything he has to save an ancient city—and my effort to get it all on film before it is destroyed.
Back in 2010, I read in The New York Times that a Chinese government-owned company was setting up a massive copper mining operation in Logar province, Afghanistan—Taliban country. I am very interested in China’s global rise and their enormous economic projects in other countries. I had previously made documentaries in China: The Women’s Kingdom about the matriarchal Mosuo people, an ethnic minority group, and one in Africa about China’s growing presence there called The Colony.
As the U.S. began its permanent withdrawal from Afghanistan, China was beginning to take its place. In mining for $100 billion worth of copper, this Chinese company would also destroy 5,000 years of ancient history. They planned on blowing up an ancient city known as Mes Aynak—home to hundreds of life-sized Buddha statues, dozens of large temples and some of the oldest written manuscripts ever discovered. All would be destroyed to create a toxic open pit mine.
This was an impossible story. I was told no one would talk on camera about this controversial project. So I set out to Kabul in an attempt to tell it—to raise awareness about this impending international tragedy around the globe, if I could. Due to the high level of security risk and my limited funding, I decided to be a crew of one. I have worked extensively as a one-person band on previous projects, but it is always a difficult choice to go it alone. Alone, I become director, producer, cinematographer, sound recordist, etc. all rolled into one. When conducting an interview I am looking at the image, checking the sound, changing cards and batteries, and asking questions while trying to engage with the subject in a meaningful way. On the plus side, I fully control the aesthetic look and feel of the film (though if anything goes wrong I only have myself to blame). If some piece of equipment malfunctioned or broke, I had to fix it there in the field.
With the help of an Afghan fixer I trusted with my life, I set out in a rented taxi and traveled the 90-minute trek over deserts and mountains to Mes Aynak. I found my fixer over a decade ago, working on a documentary about a young bodybuilder voting in Afghanistan’s first Presidential election. I met him through the recommendation of an NGO I was working with. The best way to find a trustworthy fixer/translator that won’t overcharge you is through the recommendation of other documentary filmmakers. This means the person is also familiar with documentary work—you don’t have to train them.
The threat of Taliban abductions and landmines hidden under rocks in the road were ever-present. Traveling on the lone wind-swept desert road, my Toyota Kabul taxi made an easy target for potential rocket attacks. I exhaled a deep sigh of relief upon reaching our final destination alive.
The ancient city of Mes Aynak was awe-inspiring, a sprawling city covering more than 500,000 square meters, over 100 football fields. It reminded me of Machu Picchu or Pompeii in terms of its scale and epic beauty. I immediately met Qadir Temori, a passionate Afghan archaeologist who was risking his life to save his country’s heritage. After over three decades of constant war and violence in the area, he believed it unacceptable to lose any more culture. Qadir felt the country needed to rebuild, and that meant claiming its important world history, rather than allowing more of it to be senselessly erased. He remembered with vivid horror when the Taliban blew up the towering Buddhas in Bamiyan in 2001. But Qadir and his team were given only a few years to do 30 years worth of work, and without any of the necessary equipment or funding.
I was so inspired by his devotion in the face of threats from the Taliban and corruption within his department, that I vowed to not only make a documentary bringing to light the discoveries at Mes Aynak and the effort to save it, but that I would also work to save the site myself by any means necessary.
In between trips, I wrote about the site for outlets like CNN, PBS NewsHour, Time, NPR, Foreign Policy, Fair Observer and Tricycle Magazine, among many others. I also cut shorter versions of the in-progress film for outlets like PBS Newshour and The New York Times Op-Docs program in the hopes of spreading the word. I appeared live on CNN International from Mes Aynak to raise awareness to a global audience. Getting the story out there to major publications sometimes happened via word of mouth: Outlets heard about the work I was doing from a colleague or through social media. Saving Mes Aynak has an enormous following on Facebook (nearly 84,000 Likes from around the globe) and more than 12,000 followers on Twitter. But most often the publicity came from me working my contacts in the media, friends of mine working in the industry or former students of mine (I am also a professor at a journalism school).
I was so afraid that Mes Aynak would be demolished before my film was finished. I couldn’t just sit on this story. Our distribution plan for the finished film was built on this same premise: Go global quickly, and make it easy for anyone to see the film, while also building an audience than could put pressure on those with the power to save Mes Aynak.
Since I was working alone, I needed to travel relatively light. I also was wary of calling attention to myself with a lot of gear. I filmed with a Canon 5D Mark II and a Zoom H4N audio recorder, and shot some vérité scenes with a Panasonic HMC150P and Sennheiser wireless mics. My tripod, one that had seen a lot of action over the years, was a lightweight Sachtler FSB8. I also used the Mark II attached to a Beachtech XLR adapter box with a Sennehiser shotgun mic and a Zacuto viewfinder. The sand constantly blowing about caused a lot of problems with the Mark II, eventually finding its way to the sensor. I was constantly cleaning lenses and attempting to clean the sensor.
In 2012, weary of the issues with filming with the 5D, I upgraded and bought a Sony PMW-F3. I filmed handheld with a Movcam shoulder brace. The camera was still relatively small (but looked a little too similar to a rocket launcher from far away).
The small cameras allowed me more intimate access to subjects who felt uneasy sharing their stories. These cameras also gave me exclusive access to sensitive situations. On one of my trips, I was able to gain access to the secretive Chinese mining camp and interview the head of the company. This would not have been possible with a big crew, lights and lots of equipment.
Every trip to Mes Aynak required many film permits and security clearances, and each was a leap of faith. Due to the high level of risk I was only able to stay an the archaeological site for four hours at a time and always had to leave before dark. I constantly had the feeling that this would be my last shoot, that I would never return to the U.S. Every night I would back up my footage on multiple drives due to risk of theft, seizure, or failure due to the extreme elements. If I didn’t return, I gave instructions to an NGO in Kabul to get the hard drives back to the U.S. so that the film could be completed without me.
I did post-production on Final Cut 7 first at my home office. I received a MacArthur grant in 2012 and then partnered with Kartemquin Films in Chicago (the seminal documentary production company that made Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters and Life Itself). They were instrumental in helping me complete the film and get it out to the world. Saving Mes Aynak premiered at IDFA in Amsterdam in November 2014 and in the United States at the Full Frame Documentary Festival in April 2015.
With Kartemquin’s help, I recently launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise $50,000 to do massive worldwide outreach to save Mes Aynak, as well as for easy global distribution of the film through VHX. The funds will allow me to return to Kabul to screen the film for the new President Ashraf Ghani and hand him our official petition with over 100,000 signatures asking to save the site. We are also planning to build an extensive educational outreach plan in an effort to reach students and community groups worldwide. Twenty percent of the funds collected in this campaign will go directly to Qadir and his team, who continue to risk their lives excavating the ancient city. The campaign will culminate in an international #SaveMesAynak day screening on July 1, 2015.
I hope some of you reading this might join us in watching the film on that day and help us save Mes Aynak by donating here. We are hoping to ultimately use the documentary to put pressure on the Afghan government to involve UNESCO to make Mes Aynak a World Heritage Site and permanently preserve this heritage for future generations. I feel I owe it to Qadir and the archaeologists to do everything I can to try. MM