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Frontline: The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan

Money allows a former mujahideen commander to do pretty much what he wants with young dancing boys in Afghanistan, and even to talk about it publicly.

Frontline: The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan

Airtime: Tuesdays, 9pm ET
Cast: Najibullah Quraishi
Network: PBS
Producer: Jamie Doran
Air date: 2010-04-20

"The boy should be attractive. Who's good for dancing, around 12 or 13 and good-looking. I tell their parents I will train them." Dastager is riding in a car, the Afghan desertscape stretching far beyond the window. He explains that boys and their parents agree to Dastager's terms because he pays them. "You look for poor boys who have nothing?" asks Frontline correspondent Najibullah Quraishi. "Yes," nods Dastager. "They're poor."

This explanation -- so simple and so awful -- covers a lot of ground in The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan. Money allows Dastager, a former mujahideen commander, now a wealthy businessman who travels with bodyguards who are also on the local police force, to do pretty much what he wants, and even to talk about it publicly. Turned around to face the camera poised in the back seat of his car, he looks forward to meeting the new boy he has in mind, a child named here Shafiq. As the boy approaches the car (his face digitally blurred), Quraishi narrates: "Dastager said that Shafiq was 11.But to me, he looked no more than nine."

Shafiq is about to enter into the world of bacha bazi (which translates as "boy play"). As the program points out, such traffic was banned by the Taliban and remains illegal today, but its wealthy, well-connected practitioners see it as a necessary emblem of power and privilege. As Mestary, puts it, he started keeping "boy partners" while he was a senior commander with the Northern Alliance: "Every commander had one. There's competition amongst the commanders, [and] without one, I couldn't compete." Now that he's married he says, he might still have sex with a boy, but only after asking his wife: "In Afghanistan, men don't listen to their wives," he says, "but I'm a cultured person, I discuss it with my wife first."

The Frontline camera follows Dastager along to parties, where bacha bazi boys dance for crowds of men, and are frequently sold or traded to men who keep "stables." (Quraishi confides to his audience that he's lied to Dastager about the nature of the project in order to gain access.) Some of the boys wear women's clothes and learn to sing love songs. Slavery being illegal, the actual numbers of bacha bazi owners remains unknown, the secrecy helped along by government officials and law enforcement representatives also involved in the sales/trading rings and parties.

Thirteen-year-old Abdullah says his parents and friends don't know what he's doing. When Quraishi speaks with Abdullah, his owner and a sort of manager, Rafe, stand nearby. "I had a passion for it," he says by way of explaining how he started dancing. At 15, Imam is already a "veteran" performer (he first appears as he sings these lyrics: "You rally make me want to lose control"). Imam says he plans to have his own stable of boys when he turns 18 (the film doesn’t examine the pathology of bacha bazi per se, but it does suggest the business is a cycle premised on money and tradition, or at least a horrific sort of habit). As the boy dances for a gathering of men, his owner Golhom appears appreciative and attentive (he wipes the boy's face with a towel, tenderly), then sends him home with Dastager for that night. The Frontline camera remains on the sidewalk as Dastager ushers the boy into his car, which then pulls away, disappearing into the night.

Quraishi supplements his interviews with bacha bazi boys, owners, and a blond-bearded pimp called The German, by speaking as well with Radhika Coomaraswamy, U.N. special representative for Children and Armed Conflict. She describes the difficulty of prosecuting offenders; the one instance of punishment documented here has to do with a boy's murder. Quraishi visits with the victim's mother and brother, and together they look at photos of Hafiz's bloody corpse. He was trying to get out of bacha bazi, she says, but was killed with a gun supplied by a local policeman. The murderer was convicted, then released after just 16 months. “If only these people were punished," the mother observes, this kind of thing wouldn’t happen. Whoever commits these crimes doesn’t get punished. Power is power.”

Covering such heartbreak and abuse has unexpected effects on Quraishi and the Frontline crew, and changed the documentary's shape as well. Originally scheduled to air last year, The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan was postponed until now, as one of the profiled boys escaped his owner and was relocated -- events put in motion when Frontline producer Jamie Duran "consulted with "Western authorities" and got help from Mestary ("He seemed to have become more sensitive to the damage done by bacha bazi"). It's a strangely heartening and necessarily vague story, involving help as well from the "Afghan government."

Frontline's intervention into the workings of local power and practice is surely unusual, if understandable. But as the makers become part of the story they're telling, they are only underlining what is always the case in such documentary work -- the films mean to expose and change bad situations and the camera's very presence affects its subjects, as do interactions with crewmembers (on-screen or off-). As Dancing Boys reveals and helps to stage Dastager's shifting postures -- his arrogance and apparent ease with what he's doing, as well as his increasing "agitation" and outright lies by documentary's end -- it also uncovers its own apparatus, the power it brings to bear on its subjects.


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