Mariam Ghani’s What We Left Unfinished seeks to exhume several unfinished Afghan films and repurpose them as a window into the intersections of art and politics during the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, which existed between 1978 and 1992. To accomplish this, Ghani splices together sequences from the films with stock footage, clips taken from Soviet TV broadcasts, and interviews with directors and actors who, despite differing political tendencies and affiliations, share a passion for the medium. The resulting film is imbued with a bittersweetness bordering on nostalgia for this tarnished “golden age” of Afghan film when new features were cranked out at an unprecedented rate, giving impetus to a cinemagoing culture not only in the capital of Kabul but in the provinces as well.
The particular films of interest to Ghani were begun at various times during the communist period with the official purpose of imagining “an ideal Afghan communist republic” that nonetheless “exists only on film,” as the intertitles pointedly inform the viewer. The incomplete nature of these films allows Ghani to view them more as historical artifacts than the “ideological weapons” that they were intended to be, at least officially.
Whether they woodenly fulfilled their function as propaganda and lost favor when a new regime took power, or chafed against censorship in an attempt to depict “truth,” the fact that the films ran aground of shifts in politics still lends them historical value. By exploring the conditions in which they were made, What We Left Unfinished provides a nuanced look at the instability of the short-lived Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, showing us how the communist period was by no means homogenous, instead comprising a series of regimes each with their own spin on Marxism-Leninism, and attendant expectations for filmmakers.
What We Left Unfinished leans heavily on intertitles to provide background on a complex historical moment for which many viewers will have little context. As is often the case, intertitle usage in films is a source of dubious objectivity, at least in a way that interviews aren’t, because if we can tell who’s speaking, we recognize an individual perspective. While it’s hard to imagine a more efficient means of filling in gaps for our benefit, the intertitles hamper the multi-faceted story that Ghani wants to present with the unfinished films.
Even so, one doesn’t come away with from the documentary with a clear idea of the historical timeline. What We Left Unfinished is at its best when the images are allowed to comment on or contradict each other. At times they seem to illustrate a story told by their makers, taking on an unreal quality, as if they came from documentaries or newsreels and not fictional films. It’s an effect further complicated by the fact that some, as works of social realism, were meant to portray the day-to-day realities of life in Afghanistan under communism.
For Ghani, Afghan film is caught in a deadlock. Under communism, state funding made it possible for almost anyone to make a film, so long as they made propaganda. With the collapse of communism and rise of the Taliban, filmmakers became either pariahs or refugees. Then the new state set up after the U.S. invasion in 2001 gave filmmakers license to make any sort of film they pleased but failed to provide any funding or infrastructure. Given that Ghani’s film was made in 2019, it can hardly be expected to address the current situation in Afghanistan, but we can assume that it threatens to return would-be filmmakers to their pre-communist predicament, where film not only lacked funding, it was considered “the Great Satan.”
What We Left Unfinished so insists on the inextricability of politics and film production that it prompts the question: How did Ghani’s documentary even get funded, and what political machinations allowed it to come to fruition, especially considering that the filmmaker so happens to be daughter of the current Afghan president? For evading this question, the accusation might be leveled that What We Left Unfinished is itself unfinished. Regardless, it spurs us to consider the politics that underlies any artistic activity.