In ‘What We Left Unfinished,’ Mariam Ghani recalls Afghan tales burned, lost, forgotten

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There is no better setting in the Bay Area than the San Francisco International Film Festival to celebrate the privilege of creating a movie — and those who create them.

One of such figures whom this year’s festival celebrated is artist and director Mariam Ghani, who shares the stories of five unfinished films from the Afghan Film Archive she discovered in 2013: “Agent” ( 1991), “The Black Diamond” (1989), “The April Revolution” (1978), “Downfall” (1987) and “Wrong Way” (1990). Though each film was either canceled or abandoned during the communist regime and Taliban rule in Afghanistan, Ghani has brought them back into the public eye with her own film: “What We Left Unfinished.”

Ghani underscores the lack of creative freedom in her documentary, in which the salient details from interviews with directors, actors and writers propel the short movie. Ghani conducted the interviews in Afghan Persian with subtitles providing translation.

In April 1978, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan seized power in a violent revolution, nationalizing the Afghan film industry and lording over filmmakers’ creative rights, according to the documentary. From 1978 to 1991, various regimes in the country commissioned and censored films, only permitting movies that portrayed perfect, unrealistic communist states, one of Ghani’s interviewees says.

Communist politician Hafizullah Amin, who helped to orchestrate the 1978 takeover, commissioned a movie about himself called “The April Revolution.” In Ghani’s film, the director of “Revolution” recalls that in every scene featuring Amin, the politician’s army had assault rifles pointed at the film crew the entire time.

Other horrifying details surface as the documentary goes on. The interviewed film crews explain that they did not have access to blanks for the guns they used while on screen, even though most films featured gunfights in order to truly capture the state of violence and combat at the time. Thus, the film crews used real bullets that they shot out of their guns at each other during scenes. In one instance, an actor recalls a time when a cast member misunderstood a director’s instruction. The cast member was shot in the head and died on the spot.

These directors, actors and writers produced art for the sake of both history and a chance to process the violence around them. After the communist regime had been overthrown, the artists found themselves in an even more precarious situation, forcing them to leave the country.

“I locked the footage for my movie “Agent” in a closet and fled … but then I heard that all the archives of Afghan film were taken away in seven containers and burned in a public square,” says director Latif Ahmadi in an interview. “There was not a single second in my life where I didn’t think about that film. … It was left unfinished and still burned.”

Ahmadi later found pieces of footage from his movie and reflected that he felt so happy that he almost passed out. Making movies was entirely political in Afghanistan. As one actress, Yasamin Yarmal, explains, that art was opposed both by the government and by the people. “What We Left Unfinished” shows in stark focus the harrowing, violent details of what happens when creative freedom is impaired, forcing these stories — and all the questions they bring up for the present day — back into dialogue.

Malini Ramaiyer covers culture and diversity. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @malinisramaiyer.