What We Left Unfinished


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

What We Left Unfinished
"The stories are astonishing."

In 1991 five pictures in production under the auspices of Afghan Film were interrupted. What We Left Unfinished is about those movies mid-making, but also in part the story of Afghanistan's film industry. This is not Mariam Ghani's first documentary, but her first feature. A compact 71 minutes, it manages to cover complicated history with clarity. Archive footage from a variety of sources, including the Krasnogorsk Institute, is assembled to support interviews with a variety of film-makers and actors.

Their interrupted films are five in number: The April Revolution, Downfall, Wrong Way, Agent, and The Black Diamond. Propaganda about regime change, intelligence thrillers, dramas about smuggling. Made with approval from a temporarily generous state, their production already complicated by coup, counter-coup, Communist invasion, their interruption just adds to their intrigue.

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There's background provided by text, crisp subtitling and end titles all constructed by the multi-hyphenated Ghani. Ian Olds contributes to a project that requires careful editing, and Qasim Naqhvi's score pulls us in from the off. An early, off-kilter drone, the skirl of strings. Moments from the scores of the original films appear too, but it's hard to tell which is which.

The film jumps between aspect ratios with its archive. There are some striking images, including mental ones. The head of the cinematographers' union talks about his Diplomatic passport, and the shots we see are widely travelled. There's a moment in an interrogation that could be French New Wave, a staggering moment of motor traffic in the mountains that could be a matte painting from Metropolis, mezzanines become massifs. There are action sequences with Hong Kong flavour, all among clips from those five films shorn from context. Yet those moments grab, in a film that's a treat to look at. Some look Seventies, others with synth on the top feel like early Cronenberg.

The stories are astonishing. A casual regard for health and safety means that there's at least one story where the bullets being real is an incidental detail. A head of state says "are you going to kill all these people?". There could be a content warning, there's no shortage of violence. One sequence after an accident leads to an astonishing moment of ghostly beauty, others have echoes of the uncanny in different directions. From back and forth the shadows reveal a figure to the chainlink fence, the skies reach down to touch the mountains.

Afghanistan is between worlds and a graveyard of empires. The filmic traditions referenced here are various. There's a moment that recalls Kathryn Bigelow's work on Point Break more than Zero Dark Thirty, and it's not alone in the mujahideen moulded melodramas. There's a discussion of Western influence, not just cultural but cinematic. There's a moment borrowed straight from classic oaters, in and among rough and tumble and rough and ready.

The interviews build around thematic strands, as do the clips. A running sequence of running gives way to mechanisms martial and movie-making. There is talk of change, of regimes and religion. There's discussions of "a way to link the past to the present" and this film achieves it. One of the films has components repurposed for Afghanistan: The Revolution Continues, and the balancing act between the differently generous governments of Afghanistan and the advice offered by Soviet assistants is well represented. This is a lovely work. Slow architectural tableaux show changes to the headquarters of Afghan Film, archive and current footage the changes and otherwise to the land. Other primers to guerrilla national cinema exist, and this is an excellent addition to that canon.

Reviewed on: 09 Aug 2021
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Story of five unfinished fiction films from Communist-era Afghanistan.

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