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Film Review: Despite Censorship and Propaganda, Afghan Filmmakers Shine in “What We Left Unfinished”

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | August 2nd, 2021

Film poster: “What We Left Unfinished”

What We Left Unfinished (Mariam Ghani, 2019) 3 out of 4 stars.

The opening title cards of director Mariam Ghani’s debut feature-length documentary, What We Left Unfinished, explain how in April, 1978, the Communist Party of Afghanistan seized power in a coup d’état, thereafter nationalizing the film industry and putting filmmakers to work celebrating the new order. We soon learn how quickly that government was itself overthrown, and then how the next one was, as well, before the Soviet Union invaded in 1979 and installed its own regime, which lasted until a few years after the Soviets left in 1989. As much as politics play an important role in the narrative, however, Ghani’s true focus is on the movies made in that time, particularly the ones that were never completed. And so, over the course of a very brief 71 minutes, we watch footage from those films and listen to the directors, cinematographers and actors who worked on them. The result is a fascinating deep dive into a strange period in the history of a part of the world still very much at the center of the global stage today.

All the selected excerpts reveal administrations, irrespective of who was in charge, intent on propagating their views of what an ideal Afghanistan might look like. The righteous ones battle foreigners, drug dealers and, later, the mujahideen, those Islamic fighters fighting the communists (and often backed, at the time, by the USA). Eventually, these opposition forces would form the backbone of the Taliban, which took over in 1996, was then defeated by American forces in the aftermath of 9/11, and may soon be back in charge before too long. The country is nothing if not simultaneously restless and consistent, not to mention a longtime victim of outside meddling. Still, from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, the official movies of the Afghan film industry extolled the virtues of secular Marxism, couched in various popular genres for mass appeal. And it’s all here for us to enjoy.

Still from WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED ©Dekanalog

We watch clips from The April Revolution (1978), Downfall (1987), The Black Diamond (1990), Agent (1990) and Wrong Way (1991), among others. Accompanying the images are interviews with veterans of the industry, including cinematographer/director Latif Ahmadi, civil servant/critic/writer Hossain Fakhri, actor/director Juwansher Haidary, director Wali Latifi, actor/director Faqir Nabi and actress Yasamin Yarmal. Their voices help place what we see in context, telling us why they made certain choices and how they worked within the limitations imposed on them. Just as a filmmaker like the late Andrei Tarkovsky discovered in his time and place (the Soviet Union of the 1960s and 1970s), as long as their scripts passed the censors, they would receive as many resources as required. It was restrictive, for sure, but as Yasamin Yarmal muses towards the end, now they have no restrictions, but also no money. And so it goes (Tarkovsky came to a similar realization once he decamped for Western Europe in the 1980s).

Though the documentary holds our interest, it would be stronger with additional historical perspectives, perhaps from an Afghan academic or two, to further illuminate the background. Still, what remains mostly engrosses, showing a people determined to tell their own stories, despite being told where to put the camera when and why by talentless functionaries. They did their best, and what they left unfinished still sparkles.

Still from WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED ©Dekanalog

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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