Swiss filmmaker Christian Frie’s Sundance Film Festival award-nominated documentary, The Giant Buddhas, is an explorative, thought-provoking excuse for a nap.
The subject matter, the destruction of giant Buddha sculptures carved into Afghani cliffs as part of a cultural cleansing, is absolutely fascinating. Unfortunately, Frie takes an interesting and compelling subject and turns it into a droning, seemingly unending piece that will no doubt be hailed for its painful “artistic choices”.
The first problem to present itself is the narrator. Like the stereotypical voice found on relaxation tapes, he speaks in soothing, sleep-inducing tones. I found myself beginning to nod off within the first few minutes of this utter lack of vocal emphasis.
Next, the prolonged shots. Meant to give the viewer an idea of the cultures, landscape, and emotional depth found in the film’s subjects, the shots become increasingly dull. More so when the shots are accompanied by a distinct lack of sound, leaving the viewer all too aware of the fact that little to nothing in the unnecessarily long shoth is moving.
It’s one thing to go to a museum or open a magazine and marvel at the beautiful still photography, but in the art of motion pictures – even documentaries – there are more factors to take into account than the beauty of a single shot.
This error is compounded by another: the editing. Frie had plenty of interviews from which he could have extracted audio to place over these otherwise interesting shots, but he failed to do so. In fact, he even left more interview footage in than he should have.
In one instance, the documentary cuts to interview footage, and for the first few seconds the subject is completely silent. Then, his expression revealing that he has just been alerted to the fact that the camera is rolling, he takes a large breath and begins to speak. That’s notn creative choice, it’s just shoddy editing.
Then there’s the music. It was wonderful. Always invoking the desired emotions from the viewers, keeping their attention, and giving the documentary a sense of forward movement, there was just one problem with the music: it wasn’tn used enough. Another thing that could have covered those painfully lengthened shots and monotonous narrator, and it was sorely underused.
Amidst all this, set there almost to prove the fact that this could have been a much better documentary, there were moments when Frie remembered how to construct a film. These moments, which utilized the proper amount of music, narration, interviews and shots both active and beautifully still, only highlighted the things that were wrong with the rest of the piece. And just as the viewer begins to think their money hasn’t been wasted, the oasis of adequate filmmaking is gone and the documentary returnsn to its orginal goal of providing a naptime for moviegoers.
In the end, The Giant Buddhas fails because it has too little information to spread out over the 95 minutes that this documentary runs. Perhaps if Frie had been more concerned with presenting what he had in an interesting way rather than meeting the minimum time requirement to call it “feature length”, it may have been a captivating film. As it stands, Frie’s potential audience is better served by turning to Google.
This review was originally published in The Clackamas Print.