WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED
WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED
WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED
WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED
The story of five unfinished Afghan Communist films, and just how far artists will go to keep making art in times of war and political repression

WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED

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​CRITICS CHOICE AWARD - Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival | BEST DOCUMENTARY Speaking Truth to Power Award - Toronto Reel Asian Film Festival | NEW TALENT AWARD NOMINEE - Sheffield Doc/Fest

Film Studies • Asian Studies • Middle East Studies • Archival Studies • Film + Art Human Rights • World History • Political Science • History of Afghanistan

Date of Completion: 2019 | Run Time: 71 minutes​​ | Language: Dari with English, Italian, Spanish & German subtitles | Captions: No | Includes: Transcript + Educational Resources | Director & Producer: Mariam Ghani | Executive Producer: Alysa Nahmias Editor: Ian Olds Director of Photography: Adam Hogan Score: Qasim Naqvi

    WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED brings together newly rediscovered and restored footage from five lost Afghan Communist feature films — The April Revolution (1978), Downfall (1987), The Black Diamond (1989), Wrong Way (1990), and Agent (1991) — with present-day interviews that reveal the behind-the-scenes stories of the filmmakers - including directors, actors, and crew members who often swapped roles- and new footage shot in the same locations by some of the same directors and cinematographers. Just as the original filmmakers did when they shot action scenes with real bullets, hired ex-agents to play spies, or restaged the Communist coup d’état with the army, air force, and an awful lot of tanks and missiles, WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED interweaves histories and fictions. But it's also a tribute to a tight-knit group of filmmakers who loved cinema enough to risk their lives for art. Despite government interference, censorship boards, scarce resources, armed opposition, and near-constant threats of arrest and even death, they made films that were subversive and, in the filmmakers’ opinions, constructed fictions that were always “true” to life.

    The New School for Social Research | Ann L. Stoler, Willy Brandt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology and Historical Studies
    "The sound and sense of the film and the entire notion of producing a new archive of an unfinished one, was so powerful and brilliant. Ghani opens up the possibility of what it means to 'document' — to teach — visually, verbally, with image and imagination in so many ways. It's an inspiration for us all to do so much with the unfinished of so many political moments - for me in Indonesia, and elsewhere."

    Bard College, Hessel Museum of Art | Ann E. Butler, Director of Library and Archives, Center for Curatorial Studies
    "A compelling analysis of the impact of war and political instability on state-run film archives and state-sponsored feature filmmaking programs by Director/ Producer Mariam Ghani. What We Left Unfinished examines the tenuous relationship between truth-telling and storytelling through a material study of film fragments from five unfinished feature films produced during the Communist era in Afghanistan (1978-1991). Ghani's incisive forensic analysis and historical rendering ultimately questions how we know what we know and what constitutes historical evidence. I hope this title is recommended for media studies and cultural studies, in addition to cinema studies curricula."

    Friedrich-Meinecke-Institut, Freie Universität Berlin | Timothy Nunan, Freigeist Fellow in Global History
    "What We Left Unfinished is at once a fascinating reconstruction of the doomed Afghan experiment in socialism as well as an exploration of how artists reflect on their creations across the divides of the end of the Cold War and the 'War on Terror.' Through the stories of several Afghan filmmakers and their half-completed film projects, we get perspectives on what socialism and modernity meant for a generation of Afghan intellectuals from their point of view. Afghans sought ways to translate their experience of war and revolution to the silver screen, but also experimented with crime dramas and romance films capturing the tensions of Third World socialism and modernization. For a nation whose story is often reduced to one of geopolitical conflict and terrorism, Ghani's reconstruction of these worlds is no small feat. I would use What We Left Unfinished in classroom teaching on the history of Afghanistan and the Cold War, as well as classes on the legacies of Communism. The theme of artists’ position vis-à-vis state power and ideology transcends the specifics of the Afghan case. And as questions loom over the future of American and international support for the Afghan government in the long term, Ghani’s film puts a human face on Afghans’ quest to fashion a place for themselves in the world between the Cold War and post 9/11 structures of American power."

    University of California, Berkeley | Elena Schneider, Associate Professor of History
    "An amazing film and work of filmic reconstruction from the archives. What We Left Unfinished probes the relationship between the state and artists under Cold War socialism, alongside existential questions about artistic creation, memory, and how we know what we know. As a historian, I found myself enthralled by this stunning, previously unknown story and fascinated by comparisons with Cuba and Russia."

    New York University | Andrew Weiner, Assistant Professor of Art Theory and Criticism
    "Terrific work, gripping on virtually every level, and highly recommended to anyone with an interest in global left memory, archival practices, and aesthetics and politics."

    Bard Early College, Queens | Zohra Saed, Assistant Professor in Literature
    "This priceless documentary stitches together unfinished Afghan films from the 1970s and 1980s with the voice of directors and pioneer women actors. The unfinished films are given a rich life by their stories and memories. It offers spectacularly rare films, since many of these reels were inaccessible or lost in the archives. What We Left Unfinished is essential viewing for anyone interested in the complexity of Afghanistan."

    Toronto Reel Asian International Film Festival | Truth to Power Award Jury Statement
    "With our relative privilege as Canadians, we don’t often get to see certain stories from certain lives. What We Left Unfinished brings to Toronto a story of survival and expression through examining a forgotten medium: unfinished propaganda films from Afghanistan. Ms. Ghani deftly weaves together archival footage, recent interviews, and atmospheric shots of destruction and what is rebuilt. We congratulate and thank her for bringing this film to Reel Asian."

    Variety
    "What We Left Unfinished is cultural archaeology of special interest to cineastes. Excerpts from surviving footage plus latter-day interviews with the filmmakers highlight the fragility of artistic creation under 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… Most [of the filmmakers] assumed the unfinished features were lost forever… 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… 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."

    Hyperallergic
    "By combining the surviving crew members’ reminiscences with the restored footage, Ghani creates a fascinating quasi-historical document. The films’ versions of then-contemporary events, or their expression of societal conditions, often clash with what the real people recall … We sometimes speak of art as a mirror for culture. What We Left Unfinished interrogates what reflection we see in the mirror."

    Houston Chronicle
    "What We Left Unfinished is a soaring testament to what movies can mean to a people."

    Filmlöwin, The Feminist Film Journal
    "Sheds light on the tension between art and politics, aspiration and reality."

    Farsi Cinema Center
    "Uncovering a brilliant, once-lost history and retelling the story of Afghan cinema in a new light."

    Brooklyn Rail
    "Ghani’s extraordinary documentary stemmed from her efforts to preserve those films from deterioration, some of them having been archived but unfinished. [...] What We Left Unfinished is powerful enough to rouse a (fetishistic?) interest in a virtually unknown chapter of world cinema history."

    Film Inquiry
    "Unfinished's mere existence serves a testament to archivists and government supported film, and their historical necessity."

    East Bay Express
    "A capsule history of a fascinating but dangerous period in a perennially divided nation."

    48 Hills
    "As the documentary progresses, we realize Ghani is actually constructing a whole new feature film using the clips to illustrate the film makers’ memories and political perspectives … What We Left Unfinished is worth seeing — if for no other reason — to remind us of what happens to the arts when US-backed, reactionary religious forces come to power."

    Ecran Noir
    "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."

    Oliver Armknecht, film-rezension.de
    "While the topic may seem at first glance to be too specialized or historically and geographically distant, What We Left Unfinished is a thoroughly exciting insight into the work of filmmakers. Some parts are universal – the balancing act between self-fulfillment and security likely haunts most in the business – while other anecdotes are amazing and strange."

    Claudio Casazza, Cinequanon
    "It opens up a panorama of Afghan cinema in which historical facts and national myths intertwine with propaganda and artistic experimentation. The director thus reflects simultaneously on fiction and reality, and brings out a contradictory picture of the history of the Afghan state, which allows us to understand a bit of the dream and disintegration of the Afghan Communist project."

    Film Threat
    "A testament to the power of film, a statement on art transcending conflict, a critique of censorship and a trip down a nostalgic, cinematic memory lane."

    Critics Choice Award Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival
    New Talent Award Nominee | Sheffield Doc/Fest
    TRUTH TO POWER Best Documentary Award | Toronto Reel Asian Festival
    Official Selection | Berlinale Forum
    Official Selection | SFFILM Festival
    Official Selection | DOC NYC
    Official Selection | Il Cinema Ritrovato
    Official Selection | Cinema Verite Festival in Tehran
    Official Selection | Nashville Film Festival
    Official Selection | Heartland International Film Festival
    Official Selection | St. Louis International Film Festival
    Official Selection | San Diego Asian Film Festival
    Official Selection | Göteborg Film Festival
    Official Selection | WatchDocs

    SCREENINGS

    UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive
    Danish Film Institute
    Garage Museum of Contemporary Art Moscow
    M+ Museum in Hong Kong

    EDUCATIONAL RESOURCES

    Includes:
      Discussions Guides
       - Film Studies
       - Archival Studies
       - History / Political Science / Area Studies
      Q&As with the Filmmaker
      Key References
      Curricular Suggestions
      & Much More!