When the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha in 2001, the West was outraged. On one level, Swiss filmmaker Christian Frei's contemplative The Giant Buddhas works as a corrective to the simplistic and sensationalist media coverage at the time. More importantly, the documentary offers a fresh take on the issue of the day the West's failure to understand the East.
The 20th-century British travel writer Robert Byron gazed on the Buddha and its surrounding art and dismissed it as junk. Yet plenty of collectors and museums bought or received the frescoes stripped from cave walls. And now, as we learn in Simone Aaberg Kaern's Smiling in a War Zone, the U.S. Air Force owns the sky over Afghanistan. So, who's zooming who? The Danish performance artist and pilot read about a girl who dreamed of becoming a pilot in the new post-Taliban Afghanistan, and spent a year preparing and flying her tiny plane to Kabul in hopes of giving the teen her first trip aloft. Kaern's quasi-feminist pilgrimage is a moderately entertaining adventure, but the Kabul leg proves bittersweet. Even a well-meaning European can look like a spoiled bumbler when she attempts to intercede in an Islamic society.
Flying also represents both freedom and its false promise in the Dutch Strangers in the Neighborhood. Patrick Bisschops uses a pigeon store in the Hague and a handful of nearby birders to calibrate the effects of an influx of Turkish immigrants. One wishes the director had spoken to more people, but the fact that nobody seems very happy gives the doc a certain gravitas.
For sheer visceral power, nothing tops Michael Glawogger's Workingman's Death, which documents five back-breaking, life-shortening jobs. Anyone who saw his 1999 jaw-dropper, Megacities, can attest to his astonishing imagery, and here he puts us smack in the middle of Indonesian men lugging sulfur down a mountain in baskets and Ukrainians wresting chunks of coal from an abandoned mine.
The requisite Middle East slots are filled, first, by Shooting Under Fire, a slick but superficial portrait of Reuters photographers working in Israel and the West Bank. You may feel like you're getting an insider's view as this fast-paced movie unspools, but an hour later you'll be hungry again for some content. Ergo Encounter Point, which focuses on Palestinians and Israelis who've lost a child or sibling and are nonetheless working for peace. It's a relief to report that this tough-minded doc doesn't pander to audiences with hollow optimism. And like the vast majority of foreign documentaries in this year's festival, it shows an unwavering preference for nuance over didacticism. Michael Fox
The Giant Buddhas: Saturday, April 29, 3:45 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Monday, May 1, 3:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 3, 7:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Smiling in a War Zone: Friday, April 28, 8 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 3, 1 and 4:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Strangers in the Neighborhood: Friday, April 28, 6:15 p.m. AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 3, 3:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Workingmans Death: Sunday, April 30, 9 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 4, 5:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki. (Also opening at the Roxie on May 5.)
Shooting Under Fire: Sunday, April 30, 9:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Thursday, May 4, 3:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki
Encounter Point: Monday, May 1, 6:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 3, 3:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki