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What We Left Unfinished Salvages History Meant to be Erased

Movies are time capsules. Filmmakers crystalize a time and place so an audience can experience a world captured by their lens. Martin Scorsese guides us through the streets of New York just as Bong Joon-ho ushers us around Seoul. Though the stories may be fictional or altered, the locations are real, tangible mementos of an ever-changing world. Recently, a blaze at the Brazilian Cinematheque potentially destroyed decades of film and the history ingrained within it.

Afghan cinema suffered its own destructive traumas and What We Left Unfinished (which opens in theatres and virtual cinemas in the U.S. on August 6th) is director Mariam Ghani’s attempt to reclaim some of the pieces that would otherwise be abandoned. Ghani, an established visual artist and daughter of Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, constructs a straightforward and gripping showcase for five unfinished films from Afghanistan’s communist era. Ghani tracks down the filmmakers and actors behind the incomplete works, who share firsthand accounts of an era that was simultaneously prosperous and life-threatening.

It’s been a tumultuous century for Afghanistan. Numerous regime changes, civil war, and an invasion by the United States left the nation rattled and vulnerable. Its current government, set up in part by the U.S., is under threat by insurgent forces like the Taliban and the Islamic State. The recent retreat of U.S. forces echoes the Soviet Union’s exit three decades earlier, expelled by an insurgency referred to as the mujahidin. Afghan cinema flourished during that tempestuous period of Communist rule, but soon after its existence would be threatened.

What We Left Unfinished
Image: Dekanalog

The filmmakers describe the communist era as a golden time for their craft. The regimes identified film as a highly effective form of propaganda and invested in its ability to spread their message. There is often talk of a film studio’s notes clashing with a director’s vision but their severity doesn’t come close to that of a militaristic government. Though the artists’ stories were subject to advisors’ approval, their productions were well funded and supported.

The prospect of art as propaganda is an ethical minefield. The Afghan communist state pushed its idealized view of the country through its nationalized film industry. The opposing view came from the Cold War era movies of the west. In action franchise sequels Rambo III and The Living Daylights (an excellent Bond installment) the protagonists team up with the mujahidin in their fight against the communist government. A title card at the end of Rambo III dedicates the film to “the gallant people of Afghanistan.”

The five films Ghani features were left unfinished because of erratic changes in government. The April Revolution was meant to tell the story of a coup d’etat in 1978 but the Soviet invasion put an end to the commissioning government as well as the project.

Much of the footage Ghani selects is breathtaking. Cinema was made for a country like Afghanistan. The locations range from urban life in Kabul to the majestic Hindu Kush Mountains to magnificent vistas of sand dunes and deserts. The vocal coalition that bemoans the CGI landscapes of today’s movies will drool over the varied grandeur of the natural backdrops these films make use of.

Complementing the location sets are the practical effects employed. Because filmmakers had the support of the state, they had access to actual military vehicles and firearms. In Heat, Michael Mann used close to 1,000 full-load blanks, a cartridge that fires without shooting a projectile, in order to capture real gunshot sounds. Blanks were in short supply at the time in Afghanistan and, as a result, genuine bullets were used. Directors like Mann and Christopher Nolan, along with their action movie adherents, who champion the use of real locations and props, will admire the resources the directors in What We Left Unfinished had access to.

The use of authentic military equipment and the country’s disparate locations reflects a truth the filmmakers sought to bake into their work. Even though government advisors steered the films’ point of view, the events and settings were real. Sometimes that authenticity came from screenwriters who were part of government security and had access to official documents. It’s stated in the film’s interviews that one of the main prerogatives of these projects was to document life. Like many films, these were truth with dramatic flair.

What We Left Unfinished Salvages History Meant to be Erased
Image: Dekanalog

Ghani’s interviews reveal the difficulties faced by the artists. During production, actors portraying members of the state military were put into mortal danger when they were mistaken for actual soldiers by insurgents. Actors were also looked at as non-Muslims by many with harsher criticism inflicted upon female artists.

Despite the hardships, the filmmakers are proud of their work despite their complicated relationship to the era. Actor Yasamin Yarmal explained that the government would give the filmmakers whatever they needed as long as they sided with the state. She says now the government allows them to make what they want but can’t offer support.

The future for Afghanistan and its film industry is unclear as the U.S. troops withdraw and hardline religious factions seek to regain control. When the Taliban took over after the communist era, they destroyed 200-300 films from the Afghan Film archives. A project like Ghani’s shows the history that can be lost when the truth that film offers is viewed as a danger to those in power.

Written By

Kent Murai Wilhelm is a multimedia journalist born, raised, and based in New York City. He writes and makes photos, podcasts, and videos about film and local New York City stories. Kent attended SUNY Purchase, where he studied New Media, and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. He produces podcasts for The Atlantic Transmission and produced & hosted From Brooklyn With Love, a monthly deep-dive into the world of James Bond at Videology. https://letterboxd.com/Kwhc/

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