April brought us a very thoughtful review by Alexander Miller for Film Inquiry.
Ghani’s film is powered by the curious and fraught relationship tha can exist between oppression and art, the pursuit of the creative endeavor against intellectual suppression and, of course, the subversive and complex role of propaganda and film.
Admittedly, the thesis of What We Left Unfinished is a bit of a hard-sell. Still, Mariam Ghani’s approach isn’t a dare, nor does she sell the film as a gimmick, but rather, it’s a meditative look at the intervention of a regime in the pursuit of making movies. It’s an always relevant reminder of how important film is as an artistic medium.
Ghani weaves an engrossing documentary from the stories behind these films and the believe-it-or-not production tales. There are layers throughout, and its organic density lends us a subtly rewarding viewing experience. While directors Juwansheir Haidary and Latif Ahmadi discuss these movies, you can see that there’s a passionate catharsis in discussing these movies.
In recounting these stories, we see cinema as a tool, a form of entertainment, propaganda, and in ways both literal and metaphorical as a weapon. What Mariam Ghani provides is an active document that interacts with the viewer by sharing a unique, practically unheard of chapter of cinematic history that’s shaped by a nation’s tumultuous legacy. The curated movie clips are impeccably edited and illuminating in how raw these movies feel, not in terms of restoration; some of these surviving movies look terrific. While it might sound dense and only appealing to a niche demographic, Ghani’s immersive record is a curiosity that will satisfy any inquiring cinematic mind.
In March, we participated in the streaming edition of the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Patrick Dunn at the Ann Arbor Observer picked up on a key line in the film:
Director Mariam Ghani tells the story of five Afghan films abandoned mid-production … One director’s regret for being unable to complete his work is still strong decades later, but he says he wouldn’t want to finish it now. “We would need a way to link the past to the present, intellectually, in a new script,” he says. In a way, Ghani does just that for the filmmakers, cleverly choosing excerpts from their recovered and restored footage to illustrate their stories. It’s a lovely tribute to a group of truly dedicated artists.
Bardia Rahmani at Universal Cinema wrote a piece that elegantly links the film to our present catastrophe:
What We Left Unfinished (2019), does not seem, on the face of it, a film about apocalypse. Mariam Ghani’s enchanting documentary tells the true story of five fictional films from the Afghan Communist era (1978-1990), a “golden time” in which the Afghan government generously funded the work of independent filmmakers. Ghani and her team expertly restore these films, splicing footage with interviews with the directors and actors who went to crazy lengths to make them. What emerges is a poignant testament to human ingenuity. While the Afghan government and its Soviet backers primarily sought to produce propaganda, filmmakers slyly evaded censorship to tell the stories they wanted to tell. “No one can catch a director,” one filmmaker says. “He would say one thing in his script, but film whatever he wanted.”
Of course, as the title of the documentary belies, none of the films were ever finished. Some were dropped after internal power struggles turned what was once propaganda into subversive material. But most were abandoned with outbreak of the Afghan Civil War in the 1990s. This is the apocalypse at the heart of the film: a violent paroxysm in which rockets rained from the sky and Kabul was transformed into a bloody, chaotic jungle. Targeted by the mujahedeen and later the Taliban, most filmmakers were forced to flee, hiding their negatives in a bricked-over hole covered with a poster of Mullah Omar.
It is estimated that the Taliban destroyed as many as 300 films in their five-year rule. After the US invasion of Afghanistan, the filmmakers returned to find that, miraculously, their reels had survived. Yet, their childlike joy at finding their old work is tempered with a sense of grief and loss—of the world that had been, of the films that would never be.
It has been argued that one of the things that is so jarring about the pandemic—why it feels as if life itself has been upended—is that it has revealed to the inhabitants of rich nations that they are not insulated from tragedy; that the death and uncertainty we see on the nightly news is not a fate reserved for distant others, but one that can befall us too. In a stroke, surefire plans for the future become frivolous fantasies of the past. It is a lesson that these Afghan filmmakers—men and women who poured their hearts and souls into their films, only to leave them behind—have long understood, as have the Syrians, Venezuelans, Uighurs, and Iraqis of the world. Will the realization that we are as vulnerable as them steel our hearts and turn us inward? Or will it make us kinder, more empathetic, and more sensitive to the pain of others?