Mariam Ghani Interview: What We Left Unfinished Traces the Turbulent History of Afghanistan Through Media

Early on in What We Left Unfinished, a new documentary from filmmaker and visual artist Mariam Ghani, a man in jeans and aviators strides towards a burning tank in the desert and throws a ruthless punch at the man who set off the explosion. It’s the sort of scene one might expect from a Tom Cruise movie — but in fact, this sequence is from Agent, a 1991 Afghan propaganda film. What We Left Unfinished resurrects five unfinished films, Agent included, to tell the gripping tale of Afghanistan’s turbulent political history from 1979-98. Amidst the tumult of that period’s successive coups, revolutions, and invasions, a cadre of filmmakers and actors forged strong relationships and lasting bodies of work. Ghani’s film thrums with genuine affection for these artists, who characterize their films as documentaries, love stories, or tales of redemption, but never mere agitprop. Yet despite an obvious love for its subjects, What We Left Unfinished is ripe with contradiction and paradox, often blurring the lines between fiction, fact, and memory.
Ghani expresses the hope that her subjects’ harrowing stories would inspire both empathy and self-reflection. “What I wanted to make was something that’s not just for people interested in Afghanistan but for everyone who’s interested in these questions at the heart of filmmaking and at the heart of art-making,” she explains. “Questions like, ‘What would you do if you found yourself in this situation that these filmmakers found themselves in? What kind of bargains would you make, what kind of compromises would you make, what risks would you take?’ I think those are the questions really at the heart of the film.”

Blurred Lines Between Documentary & Fiction

What We Left Unfinished frames its history of modern Afghanistan with the April Revolution of 1978, when the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) assassinated the prime minister, Mohammed Daoud. From the beginning, the new regime, headed by Nur Muhammad Taraki until he was assassinated by his right-hand man, was hungry for propaganda. In its quest to legitimize its rule, the PDPA invested heavily in the Afghan Film Organization, a government-funded company set up in 1968 and still active today. As part of this reciprocal relationship, filmmakers received tanks, bullets, and guns for use in their films. Directors dove into their assignments with an appetite for jaw-dropping risk. Their stories are only intelligible in the context of that unforgettable year’s combustible politics.

But this method of filmmaking often had devastating consequences. Juwansher Haidary, the genial director of Wrong Way (1990), recounts hearing that an actor on the set of a friend’s film was shot in the head because he ducked a second too late. As an actor during this period, Haidary was often shot at by mujahideen, rebel fighters who opposed the Communist government. Actors fired their rifles back at the mujahideen, hiding behind a compound wall until the “real” Afghan soldiers rescued them. Art, it turns out, provided no reprieve from Afghanistan’s burgeoning civil war. Often, watching What We Left Unfinished is akin to listening to grizzled war vets tell horror stories. These filmmakers’ tone is one part nostalgia and camaraderie, one part earnest surprise they all survived to tell the tale.

For Ghani, this blurriness between documentary and narrative filmmaking was no mere aberration of the period. “I have been really struck by the promiscuous relationship between documentary and fiction in Afghan cinema, which goes back to some of the very earliest films made in Afghanistan in the modern period,” she says. “Part of that has to do with the means of production and the lack of any kind of studio sets, the need to shoot everything on location, the lack of things like stunt doubles, the tools that can actually help you make fictions more fictional. Part of it has to do with the way that documentaries were also quite constructed. Afghan Film produced weekly news reels from the ’60s up through the late ’80s, but they’re sort of a compilation of photo-ops. You have many of the same people working on documentaries and fiction films, and there isn’t as much of a hard border between these two worlds as there might be in other places.”

Tumult On-Screen & Off-Screen

In 1979, the Soviets, no longer content merely to meddle in Afghan politics from afar, ousted Marxist leader Hafizullah Amin and launched a full-scale invasion of Afghanistan. This third toppling of a government in less than two years left filmmakers without protection. In the film, members of the Afghan Film Organization somberly recount how they put up black curtains at their office in fear of being surveilled. Indeed, the chaos of each government “transition” helps explain why these five films are an intriguing jumble of beginnings without endings, middles without beginnings, and so on. In the new climate of bureaucratic repression, five or so Soviet advisors micro-managed each work, literally cutting out shots before the films premiered in Kabul theaters. Latif Ahmadi, an icon in the Afghan film world who directed the drug smuggling thriller Agent (1991), notes with disgust how much time he wasted just “fighting with the Soviet advisors.”

Unsurprisingly, many artists fled the country during this period, making directors who stayed a limited and thus valuable commodity to the Soviets. Ahmadi notes that filmmaking became much less risky, as the government needed artists more than the other way around. Yet What We Left Unfinished smartly juxtaposes his bravado with a damning quote from the actress Yasamin Yarmal, who began working on films when she was twelve. “If you didn’t accept the regime’s desires or propaganda, you’d be arrested,” she notes. “Everyone in Afghanistan knows this.”

These conflicting narratives suggest that directors were in a choicer position than actresses, who were considered akin to prostitutes, says Yarmal. The persistent slipperiness of truth manifests not just in the five films, but also in the contradictory memories of the artists involved in their creation. But What We Left Unfinished leaves these conflicts simmering just below the surface, never quite puncturing its subjects’ camaraderie.

Given the circumstances, the clear sense of yearning expressed by many of the artists may seem incongruous. Yet passing decades have likely softened memories. In comparison to the Taliban, which launched an all-out war on any and all creative expression when they seized power in 1998, even the Soviets could seem benign. To Ghani, the “Soviet model” for financing art was an experiment that was far from a complete failure. “A number of these people who were involved in filmmaking at that time are actually quite nostalgic for that moment,” she says. “Filmmakers among other artists were accorded a kind of status and prestige at that time that they didn’t have before, and really haven’t had since. The way this kind of Soviet model was instituted where there were artist unions, the head of every artist’s union had a diplomatic passport, the artists were given special ration cards and apartments in state-funded apartment complexes — there was a level of state support of the arts that is really unique in Afghan history. I mean of course they’re nostalgic for it; who wouldn’t be?”

A Rorschach Test for Viewers

Directors’ voices may also be tinged with fondness because they poured their idiosyncrasies into their films. Indeed, it seems as though at times they made the films they wanted to make, then smuggled in a pro-government, anti-mujahideen message as an afterthought. One example of this may be the striking aesthetic of the five films: their fast-paced editing, heavy eyeliner, and vivid fight scenes suggest an ’80s aesthetic. As Mariam Ghani notes, the global Bruce Lee craze likely influenced these filmmakers.

The unfinished films’ hyper-stylization also has intriguing political implications. One sequence in What We Left Unfinished overlays Yarmal’s call for cinema to be a zone for challenging gender norms over provocative scenes from the film Downfall (1987), which features shots of women dancing, smoking, and sporting sparkly zebra-print jackets. Beguiling images like these serve as glimpses into an alternate mode of Afghan womanhood. These actresses’ free-spiritedness was all but lost, or at least driven underground, when the Taliban mandated modesty garments for women and banned depictions of the human body.

Although several of her subjects invoke the liberatory power of cinema, Ghani cautions against prescribing any particular 21st century feminist interpretation to scenes like these. “In a way those scenes function as a kind of Rorschach test for viewers,” she points out. “A lot of Western viewers find them really appealing and see in them some kind of celebration of Western values, but a lot of Afghan viewers see in them a critique of Western decadence as it’s practiced by villainous characters in the film. And that is usually how it was coded, you could put these things into films if they were being performed by characters who were not the good guys. That’s how you could get away with showing people drinking, or doing drugs, or having dancing girls perform when it’s not at a wedding. Even with those house parties that look so innocent to our eyes, and so fun, those are the villainous characters in that film.”

What We Left Unfinished ends in the uncertainty of the post-Soviet era. Initially, the raging civil war between the Soviets, Afghan soldiers, and mujahideen cooled down after Soviet troops, following a peace accord partly brokered by the U.S., withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. But in the chaos of the resulting power vacuum, the mujahideen and other rebels invaded Kabul in 1992. The fall of this cosmopolitan city filled with movie theaters was one of the first omens of the subjugation to follow. In 1996, the Taliban, who had sharpened their war-making skills during the civil war, imposed Islamic law. They cracked down on the Afghan Film Organization, burning film reels in public squares and destroying between 200-300 works. For Ahmadi, the fear that his laborious docu-narrative Agent would be cruelly erased remains visceral. But in a twist of fate, a member of the Taliban who was sympathetic to the plight of the Afghan Film Organization secretly locked away their negatives and audio reels, as Ahmadi discovered years later. “I was so delirious from happiness,” he says with an exhale of relief. In its final moments, What We Left Unfinished pays a kind of sacred, meditative attention to these cramped rows of multicolored reels with carefully written labels.

The Present Day

Now, twenty years after the U.S. invasion that temporarily quashed the Taliban and brought relative freedom to Afghans, the terrorist group’s takeover of the government has the world watching in horror. Their resurgence has already threatened the lives and livelihoods of the country’s artists and journalists. News outlets have either gone dark or been forced to broadcast the Taliban’s propaganda and Islamist music. Following the Arab Spring in 2011, media organizations flourished in Afghanistan; the country gained hundreds of radio stations, over 100 newspapers, and T.V. stations since 2001. Now the Taliban’s takeover threatens to render these hard-won gains moot.

In a piece for The Atlantic titled “The Taliban’s Return is Catastrophic For Women,” the photojournalist Lynsey Addario paints a nightmarish picture of the world many Afghans surely hoped they had left behind. During the Taliban’s rule from 1998-2001, women were banned from leaving the home without a male guardian. Artists like Sahraa Karimi are also sending dire warnings about what to expect under a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. On August 13th, the famed Afghan filmmaker posted an urgent letter addressed to the international film community, lamenting that “if the Taliban take over they will ban all art… they will strip women’s rights, we will be pushed into the shadows of our homes and our voices, our expression will be stifled into silence.”

Ghani also sees haunting echoes of the trauma of the late ’90s in this current wave of violence and repression, characterizing the present-day chaos as part of a long arc of Afghan history stemming back to at least the 1978 coup. She states, “It’s all one really long war, from the Afghan perspective. The thing I’ve been thinking about a lot in terms of the resonance of the past in this present moment is the ’90s, and that moment when Afghanistan is essentially abandoned to the Taliban. Every advance that was made in the decades preceding that, every gain that women made, everything that was accomplished in the two decades preceding — all of that was undone. It’s tremendously sad to think about a similar thing happening now.”

Indeed, the idealism and ardent passion for cinema displayed by What We Left Unfinished‘s subjects provides a powerful and sobering reminder of all that is at stake in this current moment.

What We Left Unfinished Documentary Film Trailer


Written by
Alison Jean Smith

Alison Jean Smith is a programming intern at Northwest Film Forum and a member of the TeenTix Alumni Advisory Board. She has also had her writing published in The Stranger, the South Seattle Emerald, and on the doubleXposure podcast website. She is currently studying communication at UW.

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Written by Alison Jean Smith
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