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« Music Box Theatre Celebrates Decline of Western Civilization One Night Only! World Premiere Production of Circo Tap at Athenaeum Theatre Saturday »

Film Wed Jun 24 2015

Northwestern Professor and Kartemquin Films Join Forces to Help Save a 5,000-year-old Buddhist Site

SavingMesAynak.jpeg
Any day now, Mes Aynak, one of the world's most significant archeological sites, might be destroyed. Its historical and cultural riches, thought to be on par with the discoveries of Pompeii, will be forever lost. Its story--and the story of the men working tirelessly to save it--is the subject of Director Brent Huffman's Saving Mes Aynak.

Huffman, a faculty member in Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism and a documentary filmmaker, is working with Chicago's Kartemquin Films to produce Saving Mes Aynak.

The site sits within the Taliban-controlled Logar Province of Afghanistan, atop an enormous, untapped copper reserve with an estimated worth of $10 billion dollars. It's that copper reserve, and not the Taliban, that poses the chief threat to its continued existence. In 2007, MCC, a state-owned Chinese mining company, struck a deal with the cash-strapped Afghan government to harvest the site's reserves for $3 billion, with little oversight and no environmental regulation. Since 2011, a small team of Afghan archeologists have been excavating the area, unearthing finds of immense cultural significance, but a complete excavation could take 30 to 40 years, and mining is slated to begin in less than a year.

Saving Mes Aynak documents the frustrating and often perilous conditions under which Archeologist Qadir Temori and his team work, struggling to unearth as much as possible before time expires. As the story of a man fighting for a cause that is near impossible to win, if not already lost, the film fits squarely within Kartemquin's wider output. According to Tim Horsburgh, director of communication and distribution, the film calls to mind Kartemquin's activist films from the 1970s and 1980s, "stories of communities trying to organize against oppressive or neglectful powers above them."

Horsburgh compares Mes Aynak to The Chicago Maternity Center Story (1976) and The Last Pullman Car (1983). Both films show communities fighting to preserve something and ultimately losing. The doomed Maternity Center became the doomed Prentice Women's Hospital and the now long-gone Pullman Factory was once a major Chicago employer. There's a real possibility that Mes Aynak might join their ranks, but for Horsburgh, that makes the story no less important. "There's a huge value in sharing those stories of defeat with a larger audience, both in exposing the injustice, acting as a historical record, and in providing a clarion call and inspiration to those involved in similar movements at an earlier stage elsewhere," he says.

If there is some hope, it's largely thanks to Huffman and his partners at Kartemquin Films. Since starting the film in 2011, Huffman has continually fought to raise awareness of the impending destruction of Mes Aynak and rally international opposition to prevent it. In addition to making the film, Huffman has written for numerous publications and lectured about the site around the world. Saving Mes Aynak first made its way to Kartemquin as part of their KTQ Labs program, a series of feedback screenings designed to nurture and support documentary filmmakers throughout the midwest. According to Horsburgh, they were drawn to the film's "unique perspective on complex issues affecting Afghanistan after the US troop withdrawal" and saw an opportunity to take it to "a higher level and a larger audience."

Together Huffman and Kartemquin have put together a crowdfunding campaign that has raised close to $25,000 in less than a month. The funds will go towards generating greater awareness and ensuring that as many people as possible see the film and get engaged in the fight for preservation. But the campaign is about more than just raising funds. "Crowdfunding is always, always about crowdbuilding and connecting to a larger audience at a specific time," Horsburgh says. "If the goal was just fundraising, there are much less painful ways to do that." Part of their goal was to bring together an international audience. Through the film's indiegogo campaign, donors of $15 or more are provided a VHX link to stream the film along with audiences around the world on July 1, dubbed #SaveMesAynakDay.

Crowdfunding, social media and online distribution have made it easier for smaller production companies like Kartemquin to connect their films with a greater audience. "Each year we become more emboldened about taking a more active role in organizing our own distribution and connecting directly with our fans, and I don't see that changing any time soon," Horsburgh says. The crowdfunding campaign and online distribution of Saving Mes Aynak follows a similar effort for Life Itself, the acclaimed adaptation of Roger Ebert's memoir of the same name. That campaign was incredibly successful. Without the same level of industry support and name recognition, it will be difficult to equal that success. Horsburgh is optimistic, but cautions that however July 1 goes, what follows is just as important. "The true test will be the ripple effect from that moment afterward," Horsburgh says. "Being able to sustain that pressure is what we need the funds for, since we're distributing this film ourselves."

The funding deadline is midnight, Friday, June 26. To contribute, visit the film's indiegogo page.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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