Lost chance to reveal hidden treasure trove
Treasures of the Silk Road 7.30pm, SBS
HOW very SBS. This French documentary is about the loss and restoration of Buddhist mosaics in one of a series of cave temples in the Xinjiang region of western China, by Japanese archeologists. Adding to its SBS- ness is the lazy way the network presents it. For a start, the press release for the program refers to the site as Bezelkik, while the rest of the world prefers to spell it Bezeklik. And the documentary’s expert talking- head, who provides part of the commentary, does it in French, sans subtitles.
Even worse, there are enough subjects in this show for a fascinating series, but 50 minutes permits only a once- over- lightly treatment.
And there is no apparent order to the way the issues are analysed. Unless you take notes, or know a bit about the religions, politics and trade of central Asia in millennia past, it is hard to join the dots.
The Buddhist culture that created the Bezeklik frescoes and the way it was replaced by Islam remains a mystery.
The history of the trade routes that made the region an economic and religious melting pot where 17 languages and 24 alphabets were used is mentioned but not analysed.
There is what might have made an interesting separate story about the search for the lost frescoes. And the work of the Japanese restorers as they puzzled out how to reassemble those they found and reimagine the ones that are gone for good could have taken an hour on its own; some of which time could have come from the digression on the local wine industry.
Above all, the documentary could have explained the outrageous way Western ( and a Japanese) expeditions looted the Bezeklik site at the turn of the 20th century. Archeologists surgi- cally removed the fresco panels from the caves and packed them off to Berlin and British India. The Japanese did not even bother to take their loot home, sending one to their governorgeneral in occupied Korea.
This larceny is explained, even implicitly exonerated, with an explanation that the frescoes had been lost until a German expedition uncovered them in the early 20th century and that Muslim locals would have likely destroyed them as graven images if they had been left in place.
Fair enough, but what is largely unsaid is the way archeology was a form of great power competition in the years before World War I: that there was an art, as well as an arms race.
This is a video equivalent of an old- fashioned National Geographic article. The images are beautiful and there is some interesting information but there is neither overall structure, nor substance. Perhaps the man talking in French pulls it all together.
Ancient beauties: The Bezeklik caves in China’s far west