(Contains some spoilers – hit the link to watch the film here)
Soldiers fight off hordes of people clamouring to get inside to watch a local bodybuilding show….Sounds of nearby explosions and gunfire accompany the clanging of weights during workouts…..Amateur competitors are revered as national heroes, interviewed and mentioned in propaganda broadcasts….. Protein supplements and MuscleTech products are spoken about in awed, hushed whispers and traded in secret from border locations on the black market for greenbacks….
In a sport seemingly incongruous with its environment, these are some of the contrasts which comprise this fascinating behind the scenes foray into bodybuilding in post Taliban Afghanistan. Andreas Møl Dalsgaard’s documentary, Afghan Muscle, reveals how a sport as unlikely as bodybuilding has taken root, flourished and attracted national fervour in an impoverished country decimated by war and political upheaval.
The film’s protagonists, Hamid and Noor, could be any two guys bitten by the iron bug chasing dreams of muscular perfection. Members of the same clan, both vowed to uphold the family tradition by pursuing bodybuilding to honour their brothers and uncle killed in a place crash which ended the lives of the entire national team. Beyond this filial duty however, it’s easy to see that the two are plainly in love with the sport of bodybuilding.
Not only are Hamid and Noor fighting for the pride and honour of their clan, they have pinned their hopes and dreams on bodybuilding as a pragmatic option for escaping their otherwise hopeless situation. For them, bodybuilding provides solace from the chaos; a semblance of control and certainty in a land fettered by daily bedlam and destruction.
Their struggle for muscle is not without considerable challenge. Scarcity and poverty restricts them to the absolute basics. Their journey is further compromised through dealings with unscrupulous power players; Hamid is “sponsored” by the local gym owner; but in a fit of jealousy his stipend of 15 eggs a day is reduced to meager 5 per day. Federations also stiff the athletes with pricey membership fees adding to the already heavy financial strain.
Filial duty notwithstanding, their dreams also put them at odds with the traditional social dynamic. Few could deny the often selfish and individualistic road bodybuilders must take when it comes to competition. This single-mindedness of purpose leads to an inevitable clash in a society operating under collective cohesion. Hamid and Noor face the opposition of family members who view the oddity of bodybuilding and its excesses with disdain; they rebuke the boys for wanting to train instead of praying at the temple. They are confused as to why both men both pour everything they earn into this sport and refuse to be married off – Both have no such desires.
Bodybuilding in Afghanistan is a world without women. Strictly relegated to the participation and consumption of men only, women are conspicuously absent from the audience crowds and no provisions are made in the documentary to elcit or include their opinions on the matter. Men ogle their muscular brethren; catcalling and whistling from the crowds. In the west we might pass comment on how “huge” someone is in order to pay compliment. They use the world “beautiful” to achieve the same purpose. To the Afghans, beauty is more important than pure beast.
Competing in the world stage at the Asian Championships in Bahrain, the cultural divide is ever more amplified. Contrasts between the conflicting realities of war ravaged Kabul and the opulence of Bahrain, not to mention the realisation that they are far outclassed by superior (and much better resourced) competition brings reality crashing home for the pair.
Overall this is a stunning documentary that was not only deeply moving, but also made me extremely grateful for the opportunities and resources I have to pursue my dreams and goals without the dangers and challenges these guys face everyday. Furthermore it shows you how pure grit and determination will always trump supplements, fancy gyms. In light of the disappointing Generation Iron, it shows how pampered and whiny we in the West have become in a sport that’s supposed to be about building character and fortitude as much as it is about building brawn and sinew. Watch this and be inspired.