‘What We Left Unfinished’ Review: Spectres of History
In “What We Left Unfinished”, five films started and then abandoned during Afghanistan’s communist era, between 1978 and 1992, form a dazzling time capsule of the nation’s political and cultural history. Director Mariam Ghani – the daughter of current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani – searches the archives of Afghan Film, a state-owned company that endured the whims and demands of various regimes before the Taliban destroyed most of its holdings in the 1990s.
Stemming from the vestiges of the company’s collections, the films remixed by Ghani in “What We Left Unfinished” bear the traces of successive political upheavals. “The April Revolution” (1978), for example, was commanded by Hafizullah Amin, who became president of Afghanistan in a coup in 1979. When the Soviets assassinated him months older late in a takeover, the film had to be stopped.
In interviews, the filmmakers and actors involved in these films recall their struggles against strict ideological diktats and censorship, but also the generous resources that governments greedy for propaganda have lavished on them. The clips we see are beautifully lit and produced – some feature large explosions and shootings involving real soldiers wielding real Kalashnikovs.
“What We Left Unfinished” doesn’t dwell too much on the inner workings of making these films, which is a shame, as they offer tantalizing glimpses of a film culture whose formal ambitions seem to have been unwavering – and perhaps even encouraged – by political pressure. But Ghani’s mode is less interrogative than associative. His montage of film fragments illustrates and sometimes poetically belies the memories of the interviewees, evoking the ambiguous and unresolved contours of collective memory.
What we left unfinished
Unclassified. In English and Dari, with subtitles. Duration: 1 hour 11 minutes. In theaters and virtual cinemas.
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