History is littered with the ghosts of unfinished films, many of which continue to hold a wistful allure for people. There are all the unmade Orson Welles projects, or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s adaptation of Dune, or any other number of stories that stalled out at some stage of production, for whatever reason. We are left with concept art, or scripts, or sometimes even partial footage to make us think what could have been. Incomplete art does not easily vanish, but leaves a physical ghost.
But then there are the movies that were never finished because of political forces, rather than budgetary problems or creative differences. Recently, there have been many examples of this in Afghanistan. Director Mariam Ghani’s documentary What We Left Unfinished examines a few of these films, as well as the people who worked on them and the times in which they were made (or rather, made up to a point). The film premiered at this year’s Berlinale and will next be playing at the San Francisco International Film Festival this week.
The documentary focuses on films made during communist rule in Afghanistan, from 1978 to 1991. This was a period of constantly shifting power, of coups and counter-coups, of Soviet occupation, American meddling, and civil war. Social reforms clashed against a reactionary insurgency. Caught in the middle of all this were filmmakers trying to do their work. Which was difficult, as changing circumstances meant that what was and wasn’t allowed to be shown and said in film kept changing. It was for this reason that each of the movies spotlighted in What We Left Unfinished were abandoned, even after they had been shot.
For example, the 1978 feature The April Revolution was commissioned by Hafizullah Amin, who would seize the presidency in a coup the next year. It was not long after that he was overthrown and killed by the Soviets, whereupon The April Revolution was obviously an untouchable property. What We Left Unfinished covers not just the making of that film but also of Downfall (1987), The Black Diamond (1989), Wrong Way (1990), and Agent (1991). The documentary tells their stories, along with the wider story of Afghanistan during those years, through their footage, long abandoned but not completely forgotten.
The reels for the aborted film projects were kept in the archives of Afghan Film, the state film company. There they remained for many years. When the Taliban came to power, they destroyed much of the company’s archives, but staff were able to protect some of its contents. Ghani has been working with Afghan Film to preserve what remains in its library since 2011. What We Left Unfinished is the result of her and her collaborators’ research into the archive and their rediscovery of the five films it showcases, as well as all the others still in need of preservation.
By combining the surviving crew members’ reminisces with the restored footage, Ghani creates a fascinating quasi-historical document. The films’ versions of then-contemporary events, or their expression on societal conditions, often clashes with what the real people recall. (Memories of a brutal battle play out over imagery of a bloodless victory from one of the films, for example.) We sometimes speak of art as a mirror for culture. What We Left Unfinished interrogates what reflection we see in the mirror; especially if that mirror was for a long time discarded because its reflection was deemed unsuitable for people to see.
What We Left Unfinished by Mariam Ghani will be playing at the San Francisco International Film Festival at multiple venues beginning April 11.