spinning out of control
by Douglas Messerli
Chabname Zariab (screenwriter and director) Au bruit des clochette (When You Hear the Bells) / 2015 [25 minutes]
With Afghanistan very much on my mind since President Biden has just announced we shall leave the unwinnable battleground, just as the Russians had realized decades earlier, I viewed Chabname Zariab’s When You Hear the Bells, a short film in French released in 2015 and collected in the DVD anthology French Touch: Between Men (2019).
For those of you unaware of this particular LGBTQ corner of perversity, bachas are Arabic (the practice is most common in Afghanistan and Northern Pakistan) dancing boys known for their beauty who, coming from poor families, are sold to wealthy men and warlords who teach them the traditional dance movements and how to dress as girls in order to perform and arouse his friends who purchase the boy’s services as a male prostitute.
In this instance the beautiful Saman, also
serving as a cook and servant in Farukhzad’s home, dresses up in the
traditional bacha bazi costume (consisting of loose pantaloons, a large hand-
Saman is still a handsome teenager, but he knows that he is coming of age and even overhears a conversation that suggests everyone has now had sex with him and, accordingly, is losing interest, which means that he will be released to a life on the streets with the curse of his previous life and likely without employment.
If at first he is jealous and angry with the young country boy, he also sympathizes with the terrified child, coming to serve as his only friend in a world of older, lecherous men. And over the course of a few days he begins to see himself as the child’s protector, horrified by his awareness of all the boy shall soon have to endure in order to survive.
As if this were not enough, a couple of acquaintances lure Saman into their car, taking him to an isolated spot outside of the town to show him a now elderly wild-looking man who was once just such a lovely dancing boy as he now is, forcing him to stare into the face of soon-to-be destiny.
Although Bijane is a quick-learner under Saman’s tutelage, when called before Farrukhzad for a kind of audition of his developing skills, he refuses to perform, rushing to Saman’s side and hugging him for dear life.
In the meantime, Saman is still quite popular and is called upon to dance twice in Zariab’s movie. The second time, as Bijane watches him put on his makeup, Saman suddenly turns to the child, asking once more if the boy remembers the name of the town in lived in. When the child repeats the name he makes Bijane promise him that when he hears the bells signaling the beginning of Saman’s dance that the boy will run from the house and continue running as far away as he can until no one will any longer come to search for him. The child asks, what if they catch him, Saman reassuring him that he will dance so long that they will be unable to find him.
The dance begins to the shouts of the aroused observers, once more tossing money on the floor at the teenager’s skillful manipulation of his feet. Farrukhzad smiles with apparent pleasure of his slave-lover’s performance until the camera catches a look of horror crossing over the older man’s countenance. Pulling back the camera refocuses on the dancing boy to witness a large smear of red across his cheek and blood rolling down both the dancer’s hands. Obviously, Saman has slit his wrists and now in endlessly spinning whirls will draw all the blood from his veins. The screen turns black.
*In 2010 the Royal Society of Arts in the United Kingdom and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in the United States aired Jamie Doran’s documentary film, The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan, which describes the continuation of this outlawed practice, still common in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan, sometimes with police and Taliban support.
Los Angeles, April 17, 2021
Reprinted from My Queer Cinema Review blog and World Cinema Review (April 2021).