September 22, 2021
Our conversation began as a requiem for Afghanistan—its violent unwinding corresponds horrifically with the name of Mariam Ghani’s film. What We Left Unfinished (2019) is a feature-length documentary on five unedited Afghan films made during the country’s Communist era of state-funded cinema (1978–991), a time deluged with coups, conflict, and censorship. Ghani’s film attests firstly and mostly to the significance and precarity of cultural workers in Afghanistan—their voices were recently gathered in an Open Letter from Arts for Afghanistan—and the Afghan histories and imaginaries that depend on them. In Mariam’s film about films, I see the white uniform stockings I heard my mother wore to school. I see coups re-performed as popular revolutions, guns pointing with the camera. Between scenes, Afghans dream. Below, Mariam speaks about archival anxieties and the ongoingness of Afghanistan’s past and future.
THE TITLE OF THE FILM in Dari is Gozashtah-e Ma Na Tamam Shud, which is more like: “Our past is not finished.” For me, the film has always been about the very unsettled history of the Communist period and how it haunts the present. In the edit, we were really looking for uncanny resonances and productive dissonances between images and sound—gaps, contradictions, echoes, ghosts. All of the complicated ways in which the past informs current conditions—which does not unfold as a straightforward, linear progression. In many ways, it’s a film not only about unfinished artistic projects, but also about unresolved political projects from that era. As a director, I came into the film understanding the political context, the constraints that people are under, in terms of what they can and will say, and also specifically what they can and will say to me, considering who I am and was.
In Afghanistan: A Lexicon [with Ashraf Ghani], I wrote about the history of twentieth-century Afghanistan being circular and looping back on itself. And it does feel like that’s happened again. But I think that even if the politics reverse, Afghans continue to move forward and change and become different kinds of people. And the culture that they’re producing has also changed over this century—there have been some incredible things produced in Afghanistan over this period: There’s been a real explosion of making that was extraordinary to witness, especially in the younger generation. And it’s been equally heartbreaking to see this generation go through the same flight into the unknown that the directors I interviewed experienced in the 1990s, leaving behind their life’s work. Among those who went into exile, only the directors who returned to Afghanistan were still active in film when I interviewed them in 2017—like Latif Ahmadi, Afghanistan’s most prolific and beloved filmmaker; the late Faqir Nabi, still a well-known actor; and the late Juwansher Haidary, at the time head of the Afghan Filmmakers Union.
I think the deployment of spectacularized violence by insurgent groups today is very different than it was in the ’90s. Then, you had Massoud [Ahmad Massoud, leader of the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan] and his group—his film unit—shooting their campaigns and disseminating that footage to foreign media. That’s one way to deploy spectacularized violence. But now you have a very different regime of visual violence being used in insurgencies, which is much more performative and deliberate and thinks about the camera in a different way, and which evolved in tandem with cameras as they became inseparable from phones. So the eye of the camera and the mechanism of transmission are now one. During the period the film documents, there were far fewer cameras available, and it was much easier for the state to exert near-total control over them.
What We Left Unfinished began with the digitization of the Afghan Film Archive—a project that is now in limbo. For this reason, the film is hard to watch right now for those of us who really love Afghanistan. We don’t know what will happen or what has happened to those archives, and all of the work that was done over the past ten years to recuperate that cultural heritage.
Something unfinished can be picked back up again. Reclaiming some of the intentions that went awry, that were never realized, from these historical moments—it is a reserve that we can hang onto, as Afghans, in these darker moments of our history. We can try to recuperate some wild, lost dream from this reserve, hold it close, and try to revive it later. But we need that. We need that reserve to keep our hope going.
— As told to Perwana Nazif