Director/producer Mariam Ghani’s previous projects in Afghanistan have documented the spatial politics of the post-war constitutional assembly, real-estate speculations in reconstructed Kabul, afterlives of former secret prisons, diasporic translators in theaters of war, and forgotten histories of Afghan modernists, artists and intellectuals. Her films & installations have been presented by IFFR, CPH:DOX, transmediale, Lincoln Center, MoMA, the National Gallery, Documenta, CCCB in Barcelona, Garage in Moscow, and the Liverpool, Sharjah and Gwangju Biennials, and are in the permanent collections of the Guggenheim, the Saint Louis Art Museum, the Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Arab American National Museum, the Sharjah Art Foundation (UAE), and the Devi Art Foundation (India). She co-wrote Afghanistan: A Lexicon with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani and co-created the Afghan Films online archive with Pad.ma. WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED is her first feature.
As a visual artist and independent filmmaker, Mariam Ghani has produced or co-produced 27 short films and multiple-channel installations, six transmedia projects, live cinema events, and a number of traveling film programs, exhibitions, conferences, and discussions, with production partners including Alternet, Creative Time, Die Zeit, Asia Art Archive, Asian Contemporary Art Week, New York University, the Queens Museum of Art, the Sharjah Art Foundation, the Dhaka Art Summit, Secession in Vienna, the Wellcome Collection in the UK, the Rogaland Kunstsenter in Stavanger, the Goethe Institute in Kabul, and Ryan Lee Gallery in New York, which distributes her short-form and installation work.
I first visited Afghan Films, the national film institute of Afghanistan, in 2011. The films in their archive had survived the civil war, Taliban years, and US invasion. But they were disorganized and on the brink of deteriorating. Over many visits since, I have worked with Afghan Films and other partners to preserve, re-catalogue, digitize and disseminate those films. WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED was born from that long, complicated relationship, made up of equal parts affection and frustration.
It began with an irresistible rumor: the existence of unfinished films in the archive. For me, an unfinished project is like a loose thread in history – and pulling on that thread led me on a five-year journey that extends far past what is contained in this feature film. As I reassembled film fragments and people who had been scattered by war, I realized that the process of making the film was mirroring a larger process happening in Afghanistan, whereby the fraught, unsettled, and contested histories of the Communist period are gradually surfacing into public discourse. In my own family, while I have cousins who grew up hearing daily stories of the atrocities that propelled our parents’ generation into exile, I never heard many of these tales until much later in life, even though it was the arrest of my father’s father, uncles and brothers by the Afghan Communists that sealed our own fate: remaining in the US until my parents’ return in 2001.
When my surviving great-uncles left the Pul-e-Charkhi prison under the Soviet amnesty in 1979, they saw their own names printed on the lists of the dead that were pinned weekly to the prison gates. To me, this story has always sounded like a cross between a dark fairy tale and an even darker Afghan joke (by which I mean the kind of statement that Afghans make, laugh about, and absolutely no one else finds funny.)
Perhaps this is because certain facts are still easier to face when presented as fictions. And WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED is about fiction films that often blurred the line between document and fiction – real soldiers enacting fictional sieges, real bullets in prop guns, real consequences for fake events. Likewise, my film plays on the gaps between film and history, ideal and reality, and past and present Afghanistans. It is also a film about the histories left untold: the contradictions and omissions in the stories both people and nations tell about their pasts. My formal approach is constructed to highlight these gaps, matching archival film with present-day locations and finding uncanny resonances between archival images and interview audio.
Since we put 90 Afghan films online in 2012, I’ve been screening and writing about them. I’ve watched audiences experience the incredible power of seeing all the other Afghanistans that existed before the wars – the lost histories of Afghan modernism, liberalism, and Leftist intellectuals – and I’ve seen how that opens up new ways of imagining Afghanistan’s present, future, and relations with the West. I know that this film will have the same power, because I am making it with all the knowledge I have gleaned from years of looking at and thinking about Afghan film and Afghan history, countless hours of poring over Afghan archives, endless arguments about events that no two people remember the same way, and the intimate estrangement of a second-generation exile who is simultaneously the ultimate political insider.
EXECUTIVE PRODUCER ALYSA NAHMIAS (Ajna Films, NY/LA) co-directed and produced the doc feature UNFINISHED SPACES (2011 Independent Spirit Award, Sundance Film Forward & Venice Biennale selection, PBS & HBO Latin America broadcasts, MoMA permanent collection) about Cuba’s ambitious and unfinished National Arts Schools project. Nahmias’ producing credits also include the 2017 Sundance Jury Award-winning UNREST by director Jennifer Brea; the scripted feature NO LIGHT AND NO LAND ANYWHERE by writer/director Amber Sealey with executive producer Miranda July; SHIELD AND SPEAR by director Petter Ringbom; and the PBS American Masters film AFTERNOON OF A FAUN: TANAQUIL LE CLERCQ (2013 NYFF, Berlinale) by director/producer Nancy Buirski with creative advisor Martin Scorsese.
EDITOR IAN OLDS co-directed (with Garrett Scott) and edited the documentaries CUL-DE-SAC: A SUBURBAN WAR STORY, OCCUPATION: DREAMLAND (2006 Independent Spirit Award, Full Frame Award), and FIXER: THE TAKING OF AJMAL NAQSHBANDI (2009 Emmy nom, Tribeca Jury Award), which looks at the differences in the treatment of Afghan and foreign journalists in the Afghan war. Olds also directed the narrative feature film BURN COUNTRY (Tribeca Jury Award nom). As an editor he is known for collaborations that push the boundaries between narrative and documentary forms.
COMPOSER QASIM NAQVI’s soundtracks and arrangements for film (including five previous scores for Mariam) have appeared on HBO, NBC, PBS, the Sundance Channel, The NY Times, and Vice TV, and screened at Tribeca, Sundance, TIFF, IDFA, and the Academy Awards, among others. His concert works have been performed by the yMusic, Now, Loos, Stargaze and Crash Ensembles; New Century Players; the Helsinki Chamber Choir; the BBC and Chicago Symphony Orchestras; and others. Qasim is also known as a drummer, tabla player, and member of the group Dawn of Midi.
FIELD PRODUCER ALI LATIFI is a freelance journalist based in Kabul, who writes and produces op-docs about Afghanistan and Afghan refugees for the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, the Telegraph, the Christian Science Monitor, VICE News, Al Jazeera English, Ceasefire, and ThinkProgress, among others.