The Afghan film history is short and, much like the recent history of the country itself, has run a tumultuous course. With the Taliban regime destroying much of its cultural heritage, things looked bleak for the film archives of the country. Fortunately, it turns out that much survived, albeit in bad shape and in disarray. A number of projects have been launched not only to restore the films, but also to make them available for the public. The films Mariam Ghani talks about in her documentary “What We Leave Unfinished” however, are probably not in scope of these projects as they were cancelled by the state or abandoned by the filmmakers, before completion.

What We Left Unfinished” is screening at San Diego Asian Film Festival

In 2011, Mariam Ghani visited Afghan Films, a production company and institute that also served as a film archive. That’s where she first heard a rumor of 5 unfinished films still existing. All five films – “The April Revolution” (Daoud Farani, 1978), “Downfall” (Faqir Nabi, 1987), “The Black Diamond” (Khalek Halil, 1989), “Wrong Way” (Juwansher Haidary, 1990), and “Agent” (Latif Ahmadi, 1991) deal with issues that troubled Afghanistan at the time such as political uprisings, drug smuggling and espionage. All had finished filming, but were never edited. As a result, they eluded the final censorship. 

In “What We Leave Unfinished” Mariam Ghani combines fragments of these films with interviews of the filmmakers involved, archive footage, clips of other films from that period and recently filmed material. This is an interesting way of showing the films (that don’t have sound) and providing them with background information. Also, it prevents having too many talking heads. Sadly, it’s not always clearly indicated what the fragments are and whose voices we hear and as a result, things sometimes get a bit confusing. Another point is that the beginning of the film offers informative slides on the historical events but these are not provided for more recent events. However, the fragments combined with the context given in this way serve as a useful document of the communist era on a number of levels.

First there is the historical level, “What We Leave Unfinished” highlights pivotal points in the history of Afghanistan; from the revolution that led to communist rule, the mujaheddin guerrilla war, the civil war of the 90’s up to the rise of the Taliban. It doesn’t go into specific details but gives enough background information to understand the changing of regimes that led to the filmmakers abandoning their projects. Also, through the interviews we get an idea of what life was like for filmmakers in Afghanistan in the late 70’s till early 90’s.

Most of the story, however, focuses on the film industry itself. During the communist era, the Afghan film industry flourished. Mariam Ghani highlights different aspects of the production process. We learn about how censorship worked in a practical way but also about how this differs depending on the regime. The filmmakers tell about shooting the films and how the circumstances, especially when filming in the countryside, could be very perilous. Some literally got caught up in a shootout.

And there are some shocking anecdotes. For instance, when guns are fired, they don’t use blanks but real bullets. There was no money for blanks, but as a result of the guerrilla war, the communist regime had an abundance of tanks, guns and other weaponry to offer to the filmmakers. Luckily very often, the actors were soldiers that knew how to handle these.

“What We Leave Unfinished” talks a lot about censorship and whether or not filmmakers were free to make the films they wanted when funded by the communist regimes. The major reason for them to invest in the film industry was that they believed films to be educational. Film was very popular and ticket sales were high not only in Kabul, but also in other cities and in the countryside, making it the perfect way to show the public the benefits of living under communist rule. But, this raises the question whether or not the films were propaganda. The viewpoints of the filmmakers Mariam Ghani interviews differ on this. Very often they stress that they wanted to film reality, that they used scripts based on real cases, but their points sound unconvincing. What is missing here is a discussion between different viewpoints, not only those of the filmmakers but also of how we see this today. It fits with the almost observing style of Mariam Ghani not to go searching for this confrontation, but it would most certainly have added to the value of the documentary. 

Overall “What We Leave Unfinished” is an interesting film shedding light on a time in Afghanistan’s history that we mostly know as that of conflict and war, but that turned out to be the golden age of Afghan film.