WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED – Review by Diane Carson

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What We Left Unfinished documents the recovery of Afghan Films

In troubled, war-torn countries, the arts often slip from discussion and concern. And yet, as one wise Afghan director observes in filmmaker Mariam Ghani’s surprising, informative documentary What We Left Unfinished, “You can’t do as much damage to the enemy with an F-16 or other air power as you can with a really good film.”

But what about those works successive regimes of revolution, reform, and reconciliation suspend, cancel, and, at one point, attempt to destroy? Made aware of the enormous loss and the accompanying lack of awareness of the fate of Afghan films, Ghani went to work in 2011 after, as she writes, visiting Afghan Films, Afghanistan’s national film institute. When she discovered deteriorating, abandoned film and unedited newsreel footage in the archives, her project began—to document five unfinished productions and to track down directors, crew, and actors, most having fled oppressive circumstances, as Ghani’s own family did.

She learned that after the Afghan Communist Party’s April 1978 seizure of power in a violent revolution, film production changed, impacted negatively and regularly through subsequent governments. Through the Communists nationalizing the film industry, the Soviet invasion, years of attempts at reconciliation, a Mujahidin coalition, and civil war, the political/cinematic intersection reflected various ruling party agendas. Ghani uncovers stunning details of the intersections between fact and fiction through well-chosen scenes from tragedies, love stories, military events, and more.

Most fascinating, recovered clips from the five unfinished films (The April Revolution, Downfall, The Black Diamond, Wrong Way, and Agent) detail propagandistic efforts, money bestowed for content control, and coded critiques often cleverly disguised but also instantaneously recognizable to Afghan citizens. Drug smuggling, foreign spies, the Mujaheddin, battles, chases: all received dramatic treatment illustrated in recovered archival footage. One startling, bewildering excerpt features then ruler Hafizullah Amin who acted in a film version of his own 1979 coup against then President Nur Muhammad Taraki. Several clips show actors shooting Kalashnikovs with real bullets because blanks weren’t available, occasionally with dire consequences; unplanned confrontations with rebel groups; and the sexist prejudice against an actress who speaks out.

The interviewees are forthcoming about restrictions and, alternately, governmental support when it served the regime’s agenda. Ghani, daughter of the current President of Afghanistan, has interviewed a who’s who of Afghan film luminaries. Though their works at times look dated in terms of acting and style, the dynamic interplay between real events and constructed stories brings an illuminating spotlight to Afghan history and cinematic representation, there and, by extension, everywhere. What We Left Unfinished, Ghani’s film, exhibition, and book project, reclaims Afghan art and the opposition it faced as it locates film within the cultural anthropology of the country. In Dari with English subtitles.

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Diane Carson

Diane Carson, Ph.D., Professor Emerita, has reviewed films for over 25 years and has covered the Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, Palm Springs, and Sundance festivals. She writes for KDHX, 88.1 FM. St. Louis’ community radio. One of the founders of the St. Louis International Film Festival, she continues to serve on juries. A past president of the University Film and Video Association, she taught film studies and production at St. Louis Community College and at Webster University. Her new book, written with two colleagues, is “Appetites and Anxieties: Food, Film, and the Politics of Representation,” Wayne State U. Press, 2014.