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The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan

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Amsterdam, Netherlands -- Without change there are no surprises and the everyday slips into the mundane and life goes flat. Then the Big Bore has you! Those over 40 know about the Big Bore, while those over 60 prefer to not talk about the monster. In youth, they remember that around every corner there was a stupendous awakening, a heavy jolt to the nerve endings -- well, not really. But that's how we remember youth when life is in the dead grip of the Big Bore.

This battle against the pressing plague is constant and brutal. Too long on the sofa - wham, life is stale. Another vacation to the same destination - slam, life is an utter bore. I've taken to attending different film festivals to experience the unexpected, have my emotions ripped, have my brain bombed. I'll do anything and go nearly anywhere to stay one step ahead of the Big Bore. One of the best festivals and certainly the largest and probably the most prestigious documentary-only festival is IDFA - the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.

During my first two days, I watched: Position Among the Stars, a cinematically gorgeous portrait of an Indonesian family, too light on content -- a not infrequently complaint about European documentaries; The Foxhounds, a gripping tale of several Americans' hunt to nail scumbag-swindler Bernie Madoff and then the US government's ineptitude (and possible corruption) in not revealing the uncovered truth; Homeland, a vicious tirade by a Dutchman who blasts Israel and sounds somewhat like Goebbels; The Hangman, a journey through the life of a gentle, pious Jew who was the executioner of Adolf Eichmann and today speaks with compassion and understanding about life.

It's been the visually beautiful, the insightful investigation, the ranting old man, the spiritually comforting old man, and now I need a good jolt. Something to blowtorch my most malicious cobwebs of staleness. Something to further the distance between me and the Big Bore. Sure I love beauty, respect brains -- I can do without the vicious hate -- adore human compassion. But I need that blowtorch.

In a society where women are hidden, men's desires do not remain hidden. The repressed wiggle and squirm their way to the surface and pop out as distorted and warped desires. Several years ago as a journalist in the dangerous south of Afghanistan, I went for nearly two months without seeing a single woman. That was strange. When I finally saw women at a US military base outside Kabul -- well, let's just say I was not myself. I found it extremely difficult not to stare. I was nearly drooling. I thought -- well, trust me, I wasn't myself.

What I experienced was a small taste of living in a society, Afghanistan, where the women are hidden, and the men get very strange. And I was moving right into their strangeness.

Directed by British filmmaker Jamie Doran with Afghan investigative journalist Najibullah Quraishi, The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan reveals a stunning subculture nearly unknown in the West. We know Afghan women are denied their rights and Afghan girls are sold as wives, but few know that young Afghan boys are sold as sex slaves. Although banned during the Taliban reign, Bacha Bazi ("Boy Play") is again thriving and spreading throughout the country. Not only in its traditional home in the North, but also in the Pashtun-dominated South.

For the Afghan men, owning an attractive boy who is 12 or 13 years old -- at 18 they are considered too old to be a "boy toy" -- is a symbol of prestige. Not something to be ashamed of but something to be respected for. For the boys, living in one of the poorest countries in the world, their motivation is money. They want to live a better life and they want to assist their desperately poor families. So they become the slaves and private property of warlords and wealthy businessmen. But It's more than sexual abuse, it's dangerous; if disobedient they can simply be killed.

When a culture turns its back on nature, the costs are very high. When the women are not accessible, the boys become the prey.

The training of the Afghan boys in dancing and other matters can take up to a year. When performing for customers or their owners, the boys wear dresses with bells and twirl around the floor for the enjoyment of the aroused men. Watching this in The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, I remembered being on an Afghan military base near Pakistan where a young man danced similarly for a large circle of Afghan soldiers. Unlike the young boys in the film, the dancing soldier was dressed in his military uniform, yet he displayed the same effeminate movements, the same stylized delicacy and graceful suggestiveness. And the Afghan soldiers responded with the same heavy desire.

On the other side of Afghanistan near Iran, inside a village's medical clinic, an Afghan translator for the US Marines told me he was deeply in love with a young Afghan boy and asked me to take their photograph. The man threw his arm over the young boy's shoulder -- and the boy's eyes shot into the unmistakable look of fear and pain. I will never forget that boy's look of horror.

The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan slips us into a sordid world, one widely accepted inside Afghanistan (and neighboring Iran) yet hardly known about outside the region. The film's visuals are sharp, the investigation is fascinating, and the story is gripping. It is a powerful film that reveals what happens when human nature is denied, whether in the Catholic Church or a nation state like Afghanistan. And it shows us the ghastly damage, the victims, who are nearly always young and poor -- society's most vulnerable.