As director Brent E. Huffman says, his documentary “Saving Mes Aynak” is a little bit “Indiana Jones,” a little bit “Monuments Men.” Huffman took his camera into Afghanistan to document efforts to save Mes Aynak, a site filled with the cultural heritage of the region.
“I’ve been working on [the film] since 2011 and going out to the site alone with a translator and a rented Kabul taxi. Just doing it with whatever money I could raise to get me there,” Huffman explained when reached by phone for an interview.
As he points out, archaeologists uncovered some of the oldest Buddhist manuscripts ever discovered in addition to priceless sculptures. Yet, the area could become a large-scale mining operation. Additionally, the Taliban has destroyed monuments such as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. “Obviously, if this site was destroyed, it would be as if it never existed at all,” Huffman said.
According to the World Bank, Mes Aynak is the largest and most funded archaeological project in the world. “But ask an archaeologist that’s sleeping on the ground: they don’t get paid, they don’t have cameras. They don’t have one computer. So obviously that money is not reaching the site,” Huffman offered.
Their work also is incredibly dangerous. Considered the most land-mined country in the world, the landscape contains new Taliban landmines and old ones from the Soviets. “Doing archeological excavation in the mountainside, you might actually dig up an old landmine and it will explode in your face,” the director said.
Three trillion dollars versus priceless history
The biggest threat to Mes Aynak is a Chinese state-owned mining company and their plans to mine an estimated three trillion dollars of copper from the site. An open-pit copper mine, Huffman said, could destroy five thousand years of history and devastate the environment.
“No one could live in this area ever again. My fear is a negative outcome for Mes Aynak could set a precedent: ‘This is how we do these projects; this is how we handle cultural heritage,’” he explained. “The Buddhists were actually mining for copper thousands of years ago. The Chinese are proposing the cheapest form of mining, which is open pit. Which would be blowing up the whole mountain range.”
Though the Mes Aynak excavation has world-wide support, Huffman said he made a lot of enemies while shooting the documentary.
“Surprisingly, the biggest pushback came from the U.S. Embassy, honestly. They did not want me to make this film, and they really tried to get other people not to talk to me, people that were associated with them,” he said. “They wouldn’t let me speak with archaeologists working under the American Embassy, which was really surprising.”
That’s why Huffman started an Indiegogo campaign to appeal to the Afghan government.
“It’s not like the Afghan government is the biggest problem, but they are the ones I think could solve this, could require the Chinese company to mine a different way, mine in a different location. They could provide more protection to the site from the Taliban,” he said. “Honestly, I think the Taliban are more interested in money than they are in destroying cultural heritage. “