The Afghan Film Organization, which was established in 1968 as a government fund for movies, was subject to several abrupt regime changes as Afghanistan became a hotbed of the Cold War. A brother-in-law of King Mohammad Zahir Shah overthrew the monarchy in a 1973 coup d’état, establishing a republic that was in turn overthrown not five years later by Communists in the 1978 Saur Revolution; these violent swings were reflected in rapidly changing mores regarding film art and culture, censorship and freedom of expression. In many cases, movies were abandoned in mid-production as one ruling government fell to the next. In the new documentary, What We Left Unfinished, Afghan-Lebanese filmmaker, journalist and activist Mariam Ghani focuses on five such abandoned films, and surveys the Afghan artists involved on their experiences making movies from 1968 to 1991.
The cinema of Afghanistan has remained largely out of sight on the world stage, but its cinema is inextricably linked with the world’s geopolitical history. In What We Left Unfinished Ghani traces this history back to a time when cinema of Afghanistan flourished and movies were both funded and heavily influenced by the Communist government—which led, as one might expect, both to great strides in art and to major drawbacks.
These films, The April Revolution (Daoud Farani, 1978), Downfall (Faqir Nabi, 1987), The Black Diamond (Khalek Halil, 1989), Wrong Way (Juwansher Haidary, 1990), and Agent (Latif Ahmadi, 1991), were either shut down by government forces who were a consistent presence on set, or abandoned by their own filmmakers. All five bear strong traces of the ideologies and visions of the governments under which they were made, depicting various political upheavals, espionage, wars, and plots to overthrow leaders; their heroes are avatars for the “will of the people.” This was the phrase favored by the US-educated Communist revolutionary and later president Hafizulla Amin to describe the genesis of the Saur Revolution (he quickly became a violent strongman, ordering the execution of his predecessor, and was assassinated by the Soviets in 1979).
The blending of artistic vision with a dictated or even forced political narrative raises questions around the idea of artistic freedom that go beyond the obvious, when the matter of funding is introduced.
“The government gave us cash, and supported cinema from every angle,” according to actor and director Faqir Nabi, who was involved with the film Downfall. “But they also knew that these films served them as propaganda.” The creators of these movies, whatever their artistic imperatives, had to face compromises from the censors who paid them for their work. Yet the documentary proves these filmmakers had a genuine talent for filmmaking. “Regarding my films, my conscience is still clear,” says Latif Ahmadi, head of the Afghan Film Organization, “because I’ve never lied in my films. Intuition and emotion guided my films, and sometimes they also fit the [political] context because I wanted to create a visual history.”
His film Agent (1991), the only one shown in What We Left Unfinished that was a working print with partial ADR (automated dialogue replacement), looks stunning. Ahmadi possess both an eye for sweeping camerawork, and real panache in action and staging. Shot in ultra-wide cinemascope, Agent features brilliant sequences in the Afghan mountains and fields, characters in sun-dipped backgrounds and thrilling car chases in the desert. Yet this movie was made under the extremely close supervision of Soviet censors, and features a pro-regime narrative. What kind of art is this, that adheres to strict ideological guidelines while also unmistakably demonstrating the grammar and technical prowess of a master filmmaker?
One cannot help reflecting that freedom of expression is as constrained by the will of its financiers as it has been by authoritarian governments. Those who fund the arts often, perhaps almost always, expect their patronage to buy them creative influence. The threat of force or imprisonment adds an extra dimension of terror to the oppression of artists in authoritarian countries, no doubt, but the resulting damage to a free society might be as grave, or nearly so, when the control is soft and achieved by threats of financial or creative ruin, rather than physical violence or imprisonment.
In the United States, artists face a problem almost diametrically opposed to those that confronted the filmmakers of Communist-era Afghanistan. Here, private billionaire-led trusts and elite Wall Street and Silicon Valley financiers, rather than the state, control funding pipelines for the art industries. As Jo Livingstone observed in a 2017 essay at The New Republic, “private interest has always had a large stake in the cultural policy of the United States,” with government support confined to “passive systems like tax exemption for cultural organizations, and of course for the donations of their wealthy patrons.” Many don’t think of cinema in the U.S. as propaganda, but the aggressive involvement of the military and CIA is well-documented from WWII onwards. From Reagan-era Rambo films to the post-9/11 period, which resulted in inane, heavy-handed propaganda like DC 9/11: Time of Crisis, to today’s Marvel films—which have extensive financial ties to the U.S. Military—it’s clear that mainstream movies are made under the watchful eye of the US government, and conform to a state-approved ideology.
What We Left Unfinished displays its own distinctive political shadings. Miriam Ghani is the daughter of the current president of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani. What do the director’s blood ties to the highest reaches of power in Afghanistan—funded and supervised by John Kerry, the US Government, and the UN Security Council—mean for the objectivity and historical accuracy of her film, and the history it purports to document? In an interview with Qantara, Ghani herself admits she faced the possibility that her subjects wouldn’t give fully truthful thoughts on the Communist era, but only describe it as the Golden Age of Afghan cinema.
As jovial scenes from Latif Ahmadi’s films play in What We Left Unfinished, writer and critic Hossain Fakhri notes in a voiceover that “In Latif’s films, things were said against the regime, but in a concealed way.” The films of Communist-era Afghanistan sought to realize their art despite the strictures of a state-funded censorship system through wordplay and visual cues, subtly expressing their beliefs even if they went against what the government wanted. Following a familiar pattern in authoritarian states, many of these films shielded themselves from state criticism and censorship by presenting themselves as popular entertainment with action, romance, and comedy, keeping political messaging as undercurrents.
These are valuable films, and many of their original reels are still in existence. They form a vital part of the strong tradition of Afghan cinema, which, many Afghan artists lament, has been in decline since the fall of President Najibullah in 1992.
Miriam Ghani and her team are working to digitize movies at the Afghan Film archive, in hopes that the current semi-stability of the region—with U.S. troops finally withdrawing—will hold long enough for the transfers to take place.
The late 20th-century Communist Party’s hold on culture in Afghanistan shows clearly what a state-funded cinema can and cannot be. An image-obsessed authoritarian government can fall into the same traps as private finance, strangling free expression through rampant control and censorship of the arts. But while its censorship harmed the Afghan film industry, the Communist period also provided certain opportunities that philanthropic funding in the control of private interests cannot; in both democratic and authoritarian states, state-funded media can open doors for a multiplicity of voices and artistic visions, inspiring even those without financial or social resources to try and take their shot.