‘I don’t know if I was completely prepared for my parents moving back to Afghanistan,” says Mariam Ghani, a Brooklyn-based film-maker whose father, , is now Afghan president. She was 23 at the time and had never set foot in the country. After the fall of the Taliban, post 9/11, her father worked as an adviser to the interim government, before he was elected president in 2014. Ghani become a regular visitor, exploring the country by making art, which for her is a peculiarly nerdy process.
“I love archives,” says Ghani, who is now in her 40s. “I once organised a conference on radical archives.” She has even created her own:. “It’s an archive of the human cost of post 9/11 US policies.” The archive covers a lot of things, from the where two Afghan civilians were murdered in 2002 to increased censorship and government secrecy in the US.
The fruits of her latest rummagings – six years spent visiting the National Film Archive in Kabul – is a feature-length documentary, screening this weekend at , where it is nominated for the New Talent award. What We Left Unfinished traces the stories of five films, from thrillers and action movies to a romance, that were started but never completed during Afghanistan’s communist era, when the film industry was state-sponsored.
It is comprised of clips from the films (which include some great 1980s outfits and dance moves), along with interviews with the directors, casts and crews. These are people, says Ghani, “who sometimes went to crazy lengths to keep making films in a time when films were weapons and film-makers were targets”.
The communist era was a source of pain for Ghani’s family. Ghani was born in New York in July 1978, shortly after a bloody coup led to the imprisonment and exile of most of her relatives. The regime lasted for almost a decade. The first president was ousted and killed in under a year, then the Soviet Union invaded, installed a new leader and lingered until 1989, battling the US-funded mujahideen all the while. The dramatic scenes from the five unfinished films – of desert battles, lawless heroin traders and a drunken soiree with shades of Abigail’s Party – were never dignified with denouements, in much the same way as the short-lived reigns of the communist reformers.
By 1996, when the Taliban took hold of , Ghani’s father became convinced that “he could never go back”. So the family grew reticent about sharing stories of their homeland. But when Ghani first visited, she felt a sense of recognition. “I had been looking at my mother’s photographs and Super 8 films for a lot of my life. I thought, ‘It is that beautiful.’ But it is a beauty that breaks your heart.”
The communists invested heavily in film. As Faqir Nabi, one of the directors Ghani interviews, says: “Believe me, you can’t do as much damage to your enemy with an F-16 or any other air power as you can with a really good film.” The film-makers almost brag about their budgetary and military assistance, as if they couldn’t believe their luck. But not all resources were forthcoming: for filming gun fights, blanks were rarely available, so they had to make do with live ammunition.
Military characters were often played by real soldiers, who were incredible shots. This came in handy when anti-communist snipers decided to lurk near shooting locations. But there is one tragic anecdote of an actor getting his stage directions muddled and ducking at the wrong time. Apparently, he was shot in the head and killed instantly. “We had these risks on every film,” says director Latif Ahmadi. “We had a passion, so we accepted them.”
Ghani describes What We Left Unfinished as “a mostly true story”. But she doesn’t think anyone she interviewed told her the entire truth. “In fact, I think a number of people omitted a lot of things in their stories….” There are a lot of ambiguities in the narratives and her documentary is cut to highlight the gaps “between the stories and the history – what they’re willing to say and not say about that time”. The narration is “very unreliable – but deliberately so. It’s telling you not to trust everything that’s said.” Because this is how all history is written? “That’s what I strongly believe history is,” she says.
Many of the film-makers insist they were making art while acknowledging that their output also served as propaganda for the regime. The fact that the actors and the directors remember things differently is, says Ghani, “because the actors were much more visible symbols of regime myth-making”. Ahmadi claims that film crews could negotiate with mujahideen to be able to shoot on location, while actor Said Miran Farhad thought it was better to say he was a deserting regime soldier than an actor when stopped at a mujahideen checkpoint. And cast member Yasamin Yarmal says that if their crew had been captured not one man would have been left alive, while the women would have been kept as prisoners.
Ghani found making the film a complicated process. But then behind each piece of her work lies a PhD’s worth of digging. We’re talking over tea at London’s Wellcome Collection, on a film about the metaphors we use to talk about illness (Dis-Ease will be screened there in the autumn). Ghani has recruited five researchers to collate audio, visual and textual material from multiple archives including New York Public Library, where she is artist-in-residence.
“We have an entire database in which every image, text and video is tagged, annotated and cross-referenced – it’s like a dream,” she says. It’s hard to fathom how Ghani can be creative with such an impenetrable mass of material, until she shows me an exquisite colour-coded story map she made, her method for organising “nonlinear narratives”. It’s a work of art in itself.
As What We Left Unfinished draws to a close, Said Miran Farhad tells us the mujahideen, Islamic State and the Taliban are “the enemies of film”. The last word goes to Yarmal, who says that actresses are “seen as non-believers, and an actress in the larger society’s view is equivalent to a prostitute”. She leaves us with a final plea: “All I want is for people to acknowledge and value the artists who work in cinema – or we’ll be left with the same Taliban and Isis all over again.”
• , directed by Mariam Ghani, is at Sheffield documentary festival on 8 and 10 June.