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Bodybuilding billboard in Kabul. Elderly man laying bricks. Young man and boy fly kites. Men lift weights in the gym.

Rough Cut
Weight of the World
Rebuilding Afghanistan in the gym
 

 

Brent E. Huffman

Brent E. Huffman, a recent graduate of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, has been making documentaries about human rights violations and social issues for seven years. His most recent film, Welcome to the Warren, examines life at a secretive maximum security prison in southern Ohio. With his wife Xiaoli Zhou, he co-founded a company called German Camera to produce documentaries in Asia.

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Length: 10:29

Sometimes at FRONTLINE/World we like to present the small story that may suggest something larger about a country and its people. That's why we decided to bring you "The Weight of the World" this week.

In newly opened gyms in downtown Kabul, young men are rebuilding Afghanistan one muscle at a time. They are pumping iron and dreaming of Arnold Schwarzenegger. "They don't know much about Arnold the politician," says FRONTLINE/World filmmaker Brent Huffman, "but they do know Arnold the action hero."

"When I saw Arnold Schwarzenegger's film I wanted to start this exercise," explains one enthusiastic Afghan bodybuilder as he proudly flexes his bulging biceps.

This is not what Huffman expected to find when he landed in Afghanistan, a country that is still one of the poorest in the world and remains an unsettled and perilous place after 25 years of war. But all over Kabul he spots giant billboards advertising bodybuilding. He learns that some 35 gyms have sprouted in the capital city since U.S.-led forces ousted the Taliban in 2001.

Entering the world of this burgeoning subculture, Huffman meets Shoib Satar, a 21-year-old math tutor and window repairman, who is devoted not only to his own bodybuilding, but also to encouraging and teaching others. As Huffman follows Satar from gym to work, from home to polling booth, it becomes clear that lifting weights is this young man's way of transforming himself and, he hopes, his country.

"Afghans don't have good nutrition so they are weak," says Satar. "And people's minds have been disturbed by war. Lifting helps us to become strong."

Flying his kite, Satar dreams of what Afghanistan might become, if there is peace. He imagines a country where reconstruction is not just a promise -- a country that earns the respect of the world instead of its pity.

It's reassuring to see Satar and a friend jogging in Kabul's refurbished stadium. Formerly the site for many of the Taliban regime's notorious public executions, the stadium is now a place where boys can play soccer and men can practice their karate kicks, though it is still off-limits to girls and women. Democracy may be taking root in Afghanistan as witnessed by last week's voting for a new national assembly, but there's no Title IX gender equality in sports. Not yet.

Stephen Talbot
Series Editor

REACTIONS

B H - Forward Operating Base, Afghanistan
I am in Afghanistan right now and we have Afghan interpreters on our base that I see working out in the gym every night. I wrote a little about it in my blog-- DESERTDUDE.WORDPRESS.COM it is amazing to see these guys help us rebuild the country every day and then try to fit in with the Physical Training that all the US military people do around here. Good story.

(anonymous)
Very insightful and entertaining. This is a side of Afghan culture that really surprised me. I'm compelled to learn more. Sadly I had known next to nothing about the country other than the Taliban presence.This piece as well as "Samurai Surfers" and the "Women's Kingdom" told great offbeat stories with wonderful characters without preaching or over dramatizing situations.Keep up the great work! I look forward to seeing more on TV.

(anonymous)
I have never set aside much thought for what life is like in Afghanistan and surrouding countries. Recently, I have been reading the book A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosenni, which is set in Kabul. I had not thought past the fictional story, but realized after watching this video that people's lives were truly transformed when the Taliban took over. There were many stories in the book about injuries caused by rockets and this video made it that much more real to me. I found it interesting that the men over there use body-building in order to make up for their lack of strength nutritionally and mentally. The determination of the Afghan people is amazing in regards to changing the world they live in. I now have a better understanding of their lives and what they are daily fighting for.

(anonymous)
It's like a fancy picture. You are so great- Afghanistan!

Poland, ny
It's a great story, it moved me.

Sally Wong - New York, NY
It's really an insightful piece, and very entertaining too. It tells a story that has been overlooked by most media coverage of Afghanistan. Great job!

Amber Schow - Salt Lake City, UT
I enjoyed "Weight of the World" very much. I like how Brent Huffman examined something not commonly noticed about the men of Afghanistan. Everyone seems to think that the men body building and looking up to Arnold and other Western male symbols is something positive that they are doing in the shadow of all of their destruction. I disagree; I think it is quite disturbing, actually. We are not a culture that should be emulated or admired, we are shallow and materialistic, and it is sad to see another culture go down the same road we have. It would be nice to see them finding their strength in something more meaningful and spiritual, and not just filling their lives up with distraction after distraction the way the Americans tend to do. Thank you Brent for allowing me to learn more through your exploration and hard work.

Aura Caplett - Sound Beach, NY
Brent Huffman's work on Afghanistan is extremely thought provoking. Though much has been reported on the Taliban in Afghanistan and on the women under their ruling, the personal lives of men in the nation has been largely overlooked; I was glad to see that this documentary addressed this issue. It is interesting to see these men take such an interest in the western male body, mostly in the form of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Brent's work prompts us to ask questions dealing with the state of crisis these men are dealing with and how they are transforming their bodies in order to meet this crisis. I think this piece compels us to ask if men around the world are seeking to transform their bodies in order to better meet the transforming world. Excellent work; I hope it leads us all to further investigate and understand the lives of both males and females in this new global order. I am looking forward to more from Mr. Huffman!

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Thank you for your response. Regarding your question about the transformation of men's bodies in other conflict zones, check out the New York Times article by Edward Wong from December 30, 2005 about weight lifting in Iraq

Nigel Walker - San Anselmo, CA
Nice story, however the stadium in Kabul is not off limits to women. The national olympic women's team has been praticing there since at least the summer of 2004.

Mark - Medina, Ohio
Your insightfullness has opened our eyes and heart to the strength of the human spirit. You have a wonderful ability to show the ordinary as extraordinary. Thank you sharing yourself with me.

Kim Winemiller - North Olmsted, OH
I thoroughly enjoyed this informational piece. I wish all residents of the midwest could view this piece as they are so confused about Afghanistan and their people. Their eyes need to be opened about these beautiful strong people who have struggled so greatly but maintained their humor and love of life.

Trina - Langley, BC
Very well done... hope you will continue to research and film in the surrounding areas. I believe we in North America have a lot to learn about "freedom"; we have so much of it and yet forget... For myself watching each of these people explore their surroundings without fear, yes struggling - that is truly awesome. We could never imagine that something like flyng a kite could be such a crime that it was punishable unto death.

Kabul, Afghanistan
Hello to dear B. Huffman, I tried to open and watch the film. I couldn't but I could see a few photos of Shoib, which are very nice and very good. I am sure the film is really excellent film. Hope you more success in your field and in your life. Regards,Najibullah Sedeqe

Madrid, Spain
Fascinating insight on a devastated land. Very moving. Thank you!

Ashton DeCoster - Seattle, WA
Excellent! Thank you!