What We Left Unfinished never moves past the basic work of archivalism.
1921. 1989. 2021. The cycles of imperial superpowers invading, occupying, and summarily abandoning Afghanistan run their course with horrifying regularity to the point of near mundanity. To American and European onlookers, even the name of the country has become practically synonymous with chaos, signifying everything white Westerners fear — religious extremism, political insecurity, and the notion that, without particular leaders in power, that could one day be us. Amongst all the baseless fear-mongering and legitimately valid, reasonable fear-mongering, it’s far too easy to lose sight of humanity. Lives are lived under occupations, between wars, and, crucially, art is still made. It’s in the violent, tumultuous transitions of power that art is precarious, whether it be the centuries-old Buddhist monuments destroyed by the Taliban or the creative infrastructure torn apart by regime changes.
Mariam Ghani’s documentary What We Left Unfinished explores the cases of five films, born during an artistic golden age when funding for the arts was readily available, and reluctantly abandoned during the subsequent unrest following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Ghani combines newly accessible archive footage from those unfinished films with interviews with the creatives involved to create what is effectively a time capsule of a very specific period in the country’s artistic and political history. Ghani’s interviews are less concerned with the technical side of filmmaking in a precarious state than with retelling anecdotes of the era, lending a loose, unstructured sensibility to the film that both complements and clashes with the director’s visual style; when certain stories are related, Ghani’s use of archival footage works in tandem with her interviewees, while in other cases, her selection of images seems wholly careless. Likewise, this casual structuring and muddied use of the films themselves can lead to the whole affair feeling more like good ol’ days-style reminiscence rather than urgent, political work.
But perhaps what’s most trying in What We Left Unfinished is that it, like its subject matter, feels genuinely incomplete. Due in part to the ongoing conflicts in the region, but also to the filmmakers’ lack of any real guiding structure, there’s not even the barest hint of resolution to be found here, and while that may be an accurate reflection of the present reality, it doesn’t make for much of a satisfying film. This unique time capsule of a documentary is difficult by its very nature, concerned as it is with the incomplete, but despite effectively memorializing the lost films of the Soviet-Afghan era, What We Left Unfinished goes no further than that act of archivalism. While perhaps an interesting document of an under-explored period in history, there aren’t any great revelations to be found here, and by the end of the film, there is a distinct sense that the most interesting questions are the ones left unanswered, and even perhaps unasked.
Published as part of Before We Vanish | August 2021.