[Spoiler Alert for The Boy Mir: if you want to see the film without any expectation of how it proceeds, you may want to skip this review. I cover the broad sequence of events and include a few specific details below.]
Here is the story Phil Grabsky tells: In a dangerous place, a man moves his family south, where they live in a cave. To survive, the family scavenges what they can, and willingly (though not enthusiastically) eat the parts of the cow that the butcher would otherwise throw out. It keeps the family alive, while they wait for things to get better. Soon, there are new houses, but not enough for everyone living in the caves. The family moves back north.
In the north there are schools and work. It is hard to do both and stay alive and fed, so the young son prioritizes feeding his family. He rarely attends school, and instead starts to work in the field and then later joins his uncle and father in the mines. The family stays fed, settles, and life inches towards better. A few years later, the boy works watching the village goats. His father, hobbled by an accident in the mine, does what he can in the fields so that the boy can go back to school. At 18, the boy resumes the schooling he had left.
That’s it. That is, in a rough outline, all that happens in The Boy Mir. It is one of the most important war stories ever told.
This isn’t because there’s a strong martial presence on the celluloid. We see military forces only thrice in the film. At the start, a pair of helicopters fly over Bamiyan. In the middle, villagers meet with Afghan National Army soldiers and discuss America, England, and the future of Afghanistan. At the end, a small patrol of US troops parks outside the village, talks to a village leader, and hands off four notebooks before driving away.
The Boy Mir takes place over the course of the last decade, during which there have been few moments where one could describe Afghanistan as at peace. After the elation of rapid victory in 2001, and then the distraction of Iraq from 2003-2007, the stories now told about Afghanistan center on the untenability of the war. Scholarship referring to Afghanistan as “the graveyard of empires” doubled* during the period from 2007-2011. The narrative of war that has been relayed to the American public is one where defeat is a historical inevitability.
The Boy Mir does not fit that narrative. It is aware of it, certainly, but the impact of the war on day-to-day life is nothing more than the fleeting sight of helicopters overhead, or a seventeen-year-old’s internal debate between joining the army or staying at home to help support his family. Mir’s life does not fit into the grand arc of struggle between the interloping Americans and the indomitable Afghan people. His story, instead, is one made in the space the Taliban were forced to vacate. It is the profound absence of Taliban rule that makes possible his life’s gradual improvement.