Assembling a few found shards from the recent history of endlessly broken Afghanistan, “What We Left Unfinished” is cultural archaeology of special interest to cineastes. Miriam Ghani’s film spotlights five features that were abandoned during that nation’s Communist era (1978-1991), their fate decreed by regime changes or the vagaries of censorship. Excerpts from surviving footage plus latter-day interviews with the filmmakers highlight the fragility of artistic creation under even less turbulent circumstances, and provide insight into a hitherto largely inaccessible period in which strict political messaging nonetheless permitted a great deal of intriguing celluloid expression.
Six years in the making, the U.S.-based Ghani’s first feature (she’s done a number of prior shorts and installations on post-war Afghani issues) is basically a collaboration with the state film institute Afghan Films, which has safeguarded a large if haphazard body of homegrown movies though seemingly never-ending national upheaval. She discovered that among its treasures were several near-complete, unreleased narrative features from throughout the Communist years: “The April Revolution” (1978), “Downfall” (1987), “The Black Diamond” (1989), “Wrong Way” (1990) and “Agent” (1990).
The many clips scattered throughout “What We Left Unfinished” are often without sound (having never gotten to the postproduction stage), but otherwise are in excellent condition, running a gamut from rather basic-looking dramas to fairly glossy, widescreen action-adventures. Nearly all appear to encase their moral or political lessons in high melodrama, often as thrillers — the stories ranging from “village lovers separated by ethic feud” to literally explosive tangles between spies and international drug runners. If the acting often appears rather crude, one must keep in mind that such work was considered inherently sinful by many in the country’s Muslim majority, so the talent pool wasn’t deep.
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Some of these films never saw the light of day because their particular political slant had already expired (“April” offered a version of the 1978 coup that was no longer officially sanctioned by the end of its shooting schedule), or because the entire regime had changed during production. But the filmmakers interviewed here agree that despite ever-shifting propaganda stipulations, they were given a fair amount of freedom otherwise, and funding flowed from Soviet minders accustomed to using cinema as a political tool. More problematic was the fact that appointed Soviet “advisers” often exercised their censorship powers in sweeping and arbitrary ways.
When the embattled Communist regime finally fell, many of these filmmakers fled the country. Most assumed the unfinished features were lost forever — likely destroyed amid subsequent civil wars, invasions, or Taliban campaigns against offending material. Their joy at seeing their work decades later is infectious. They also share some hilarious and hair-raising stories that recall those of the cinema’s earliest days — for instance, dangerous stunts undertaken by insufficiently trained personnel and use of real bullets in shootout sequences because blanks were hard to come by.
Ghani adds another texture to the mix of archival footage and talking heads by including elegant tracking shots through the decrepit (but still gorgeous) interior of what was once the headquarters of the nation’s film industry. Ian Olds’ editing merits special credit in a package that feels amiably unhurried despite its short running time. This fascinating footnote to screen history is further polished by Qasim Naqvi’s attractive electronic score.