Mariam Ghani on the unique process and effect of making a documentary from the remnants of lost Afghan films in her award-winning film WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED

Mariam Ghani on the unique process and effect of making a documentary from the remnants of lost Afghan films in her award-winning film WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED

In her first feature-length film, WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED, Producer and Director Ghani stitches together rediscovered and restored footage with contemporary perspectives to uncover the politics and hushed voices of the Communist period in Afghanistan. GOOD DOCS took a moment to discuss her filmmaking process and thoughts on Afghan cinema—interview conducted by Barbara Olachea.

At the most basic level, can you tell me what 

WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED is about five unfinished films from the Communist period in Afghanistan (1978-1991). It brings together newly rediscovered and restored footage from those unfinished projects with the memories of the people who went to extraordinary lengths to keep making films in a time of war, censorship, scarcity, and political repression.

You have a broad background in various visual and auditory mediums touching on immigration, national identity, and memory. What opportunities for growth in your storytelling and artistic expression did working on WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED offer?

WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED was my first venture into more traditional long-form filmmaking, after almost two decades of making short-form, experimental, non-linear, and multiple-channel moving images. I really enjoyed the particular challenge of making a feature-length, primarily archival documentary. It's a very different form of construction, and in some ways, drawing more on my background as a writer of critical essays than my past work in film. Because we worked mostly with raw footage from fiction films, editor Ian Olds and I also had the fun of constructing fictional scenes from action films and melodramas to be nested inside our documentary. I also had the even more fun job, with sound designer Stephen McLaughlin, of bringing those archival scenes to life with sound design by creating Foley sound effects and sourcing ambient sound from matching present-day location shots. This part of the work became mostly invisible, as many people who watch the film think all of those scenes already existed, and we were excerpting them. Instead, we were making all of our decisions for those scenes in the spirit of the period – selective Foley and slower cutting, for example. The score by Qasim Naqvi also uses period synthesizers.

However, I would say the major artistic challenge we faced with WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED was constructing a film as much around what people didn't say as what they did say. This really follows a direct line from some of my earlier work in other media, which has been described as "work about things that aren't there." 

What sparked your interest in filmmaking specifically?

Film is a medium in which you can develop ideas both successively and simultaneously: successively, in the sequencing of elements, and simultaneously, in the layering of image, sound, and text. For me, this makes film an ideal medium for storytelling about history because it allows for the simultaneous presentation of contradictory representations, which reflects the way histories – particularly around civil wars – are often contested, conflicting, unsettled, and unfinished. It also allows us to build those contradictory representations into a larger gestalt.

What was the development process like tracking down the various players associated with the films and collaborating with them?

The feature film WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED is part of a much longer project that involved a long-term collaboration with the Afghan national film archive and its community. The project required years of research into the lost histories of the Afghan Left and the Soviet influence on Afghan cinema with the help of many people and institutions and many years spent tracking down the films themselves and the people associated with them. The slow and painstaking process of reassembling these people and objects scattered by war began to mirror the process by which the history of the Communist period was gradually emerging into public discourse in Afghanistan. This process of historical accounting is ongoing, and so is the process began by the film. As it travels around the world, more people who acted in or worked on the films have surfaced in various places where the film screens, which was especially lovely while I was on the festival circuit with the film.

Looking specifically at women's experiences in Afghan society and in particular, the actresses who were devoted to their roles in these film projects, what are some takeaways for viewers about the unique challenges faced by women then and now?

Even though the Communist period did afford women greater freedoms in regime-controlled cities, actresses in Afghan cinema at the time were still heavily criticized for transgressing traditional social mores. This still holds true today, when some well-known actresses have been targeted by the Taliban, including Yasamin Yarmal, who appears in our film.

A particular quote from Ecran Noir during WWLU's Berlin premiere caught my attention: "It encourages us to think of cinema as the art of preserving the past and resuscitating the dead, but also of rewinding, or even stopping, time that never stops spinning. Finished, these films might have been forgotten. Unfinished, they achieve a taste of eternity." Can you speak more on the practice of reworking these unfinished materials and their renewed purpose for contemporary viewers in and outside of Afghanistan?

The films in WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED do not represent the pinnacle of Afghan cinema. They have moments that are marvelous and strange when viewed today but do not compare to the real masterworks of the era. For me, they were interesting precisely because they were unfinished and had thus escaped the final censor's cuts that intervened during post-production and distribution of all finished Afghan films of this era. In those finished films, the lived history of the period exists just outside the idealized frame or is submerged into symbolism. There are moments where the everyday violence required to sustain the Communist regimes seeps into the frame itself in the unfinished films. WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED is in many ways about that gap between what filmmakers represented on screen and lived offscreen, which often translates in the documentary into meaningful dissonances and unexpected resonances between archival images and interview audio. WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED also uses these five films from different moments in the Afghan Communist project to look at how films are used in the reconstruction of national imaginaries, and to pose questions about the choices available to and made by artists states of emergency.

You describe yourself as a "second-generation exile who is simultaneously the ultimate political insider." How do you think your positioning has allowed and shaped your work?

All of my work in Afghanistan since 2002 has been made with the acute awareness that I work from a position of twofold privilege, which is also a position of simultaneous access and distance. First, having been raised in exile. I have another passport and can leave whenever I want. This grants me access to international networks but also marks me as an outsider in Afghanistan. Second, I am part of a family that has been embedded in Afghan politics since the early 20th century. This grants me access to some Afghan networks but also distances me from others. It also complicates my position with respect to the history of the Communist era, during which members of my family were imprisoned, tortured, and executed. 

That family history is well-known, so the filmmakers I interviewed were likely aware of it, and I expect that it had some effect on what they were willing to say to me about that period. At the same time, I had been working with some of them on projects to support the Afghan national film archive for years before we sat down for interviews, and we conducted the interviews in what was at the time the archive building, which had recently suffered damage from a nearby suicide bombing. I had sheltered in place in the same building during an earlier attack in that district with some of the same people. All of that shared history likely also came into play.

Compared to some of your past projects, WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED is a relatively long work of media. Do you have any more upcoming projects of a similar nature?

Yes, I am in post-production on a new feature-length documentary, Dis-Ease, which is a cultural history of our long "war on disease," from the Black Plague to COVID-19. Like WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED, this new film is almost entirely archival, but it draws from a much broader range of sources to look at illness, metaphors, risk, responsibility, how we divide the sick from the well, and how we define the "public" in public health. I had already been working on the film and thinking about pandemics and their rhetoric for almost two years before the COVID-19 outbreak. So, I am using the material I had already gathered to think with the past about our present predicament and our possible futures.

The different movies produced during the communist era discussed in the film are all seen as propaganda, but some deal with seemingly less overt political themes (i.e., a forbidden love). From your extensive interaction with the material, what do you think are the relative strengths and weaknesses of these different types of narratives chosen by filmmakers at the time? 

If you look at the films from that era that have not only survived but become classics of the Afghan popular cinema – films that are re-broadcast on television every year on Eid, like Latif Ahmadi's Epic of Love and Saed Ourokzai's Men Keep Their Promises – the most successful films in terms of longevity would have to be the least overtly political, which is to say the period films and melodramas. I believe Chinese filmmakers used a similar strategy during periods when private production was possible, but state censorship was still in heavy effect, meaning many period films and melodramas were produced. If filmmakers embedded any political commentary in these films, it was subtly veiled under many layers of symbolism and/or distanced from present-day relevance by costuming, production design, and theatrical dialogue.

However, many of the filmmakers I interviewed claim that their films were intended to serve as a historical record of the period. As a historical document, The April Revolution is pretty extraordinary. Even though it is a fictional re-enactment of the 1978 coup d’état, it is the closest thing we have to a record of that event. It definitely serves as a posthumous record of how Hafizullah Amin would have narrated that event. It has the odd distinction of having its unfinished footage in fictional films as fiction and documentary films as a document. The April Revolution would be even more extraordinary if we still had the missing 37 minutes of footage featuring Hafizullah Amin playing himself, but alas, they still haven't turned up. I put the word out to the Russian archives and the 'stans, though.

For some viewers who may be learning about Afghan cinema for the first time, do you have any insight based on your extensive studies regarding the development of the current state of national cinema in Afghanistan?

I was disappointed to find no women directors in Afghan Films archives, so I'm excited by the number of Afghan women who are directing today, across fiction, documentary, and television. In the 21st century, Afghan cinema looks quite different from Afghan cinema in the 20th century because of all the younger filmmakers coming back from Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, and the West with new ideas and aesthetics. In particular, Iranian cinema is a much stronger influence on the current generation than it was on the first generation of Afghan filmmakers, who were more often bringing together Soviet cinematography and Indian acting.

What do you hope your film will accomplish, and what has it accomplished so far?

My first goal with this project has always been to introduce viewers to the ideas that there is and was an Afghan cinema and there is and was an Afghan Left. I then wanted to use these fragments of unfinished art projects to illuminate some of the unsettled histories of the Communist period, which is rarely discussed in depth outside Afghanistan, without taking a specific political position on that period within the film itself. I wanted to make a film that didn't try to explain broad sweeps of Afghan history to the West but rather went deep into an aspect of Afghan history that many Afghans, and most regional audiences, don't know much about. 

I was also interested in posing larger questions about the line between art and propaganda, the political uses of cinema, the national imaginaries abandoned in film archives, the lacunae of storytelling around civil war, and the risks and responsibilities of artists in times of conflict and censorship. 

Also, I wanted to make a film that could be used as a teaching tool for a long time in many contexts because there is a real lack of material for teaching about Afghanistan. 

Judging from the critical discourse that the film has sparked, I feel like we've really succeeded on many of these points, which is immensely gratifying.

What do you hope for students to take away from WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED?

I think that depends on the context in which they're viewing it! For most classes, I can imagine a lot of interesting discussions to be had on the link being drawn between national cinemas and national imaginaries, or on the way archival visuals are used as primary material rather than B-roll, or how the film chooses to foreground rather than resolve internal contradictions, and why those choices were made. I prepared discussion guides for three different types of courses in which WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED might be taught, suggesting some questions teachers can pose to students after viewing. You can access these discussion guides with your GOOD DOCS download/stream or on the film's website.