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“What We Left Unfinished” poses tough, relevant questions about the relationship between propaganda and true art

A re-shot scene from "The Black Diamond" (1989) where revolutionaries have killed a family of dissidents. Director Abdulkhalek Halil was ordered to reduce the amount of gore in the original take so as to not make the communists seem overly brutal.
A re-shot scene from “The Black Diamond” (1989) where revolutionaries have killed a family of dissidents. Director Abdulkhalek Halil was ordered to reduce the amount of gore in the original take so as to not make the communists seem overly brutal.

Mariam Ghani’s insightful, archival documentary sees a Madison premiere at UW Cinematheque on July 8.

In the United States, audiences have been trained to approach mainstream film with a sort of political blindness. People in the know may track when films are changed behind the scenes or censored in foreign markets, but for the most part there is a distinctly black-box anti-politics approach taken to even the most artillery-fueled action films. The truth is, increasingly, that films that challenge this paradigm rarely get made in the first place. But it’s instructive to see when governments step in to determine what actually can’t be finished, released, or seen. 

What We Left Unfinished, Mariam Ghani’s archival documentary from 2019, only recently seeing an official theatrical release in the United States and screening  at UW Cinematheque on Friday, July 8, discusses this process at length. The film examines five incomplete films that began production during Afghanistan’s Communist period between 1978 and 1991. They are The April Revolution (1978), Downfall (1987), The Black Diamond (1989), Wrong Way (1990), and Agent (1990). With new leadership eager to establish Afghanistan as a cultural capital (mostly to produce new propaganda), the government showered filmmakers with funding, inviting people to essentially do whatever they wanted (as long as it also worked as propaganda). But this cultural oasis also restricted filmmakers from working outside of the system, and successive regime changes, including the Soviet takeover in 1979, led to many films being abandoned. 

Meeting with the surviving directors and cast of the recovered films, Ghani creates a sort of joint making-of film for the unfinished film fragments, tracing a thread between them that highlights the compromises artists made to be allowed to make them at all.

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Given that Ghani’s father is Ashraf Ghani, the last president of Afghanistan prior to the Taliban overthrow of the government in 2021, one can easily read into the biographical angle here. Although Ghani is rarely heard speaking herself, her own familial connection to the unsteady political climate cannot be denied; certainly she has a close connection to similar sorts of upheaval that happened in her home country in the 20th century. But she carefully walks a political tightrope, never outright advocating for a certain politic, and thus portrays the directors and actors involved as fairly apolitical subjects caught in the crossfire of ideology trying to make art. 

That’s not to say they produced neutral images. Given that many of these films were in the action or war genre, the bulk of the filmmakers’ footage before abandoning their respective films was of fighting, stabbing, and shooting. The effect is that of a sort of pure stylized violence. All the films come together as a highlight reel for heroic fantasy. Whatever their intention, it only takes a few extra steps to stack the jingoism on top. 

Take this anecdote from the making of Wrong Way: when filming an ambush, the real Kalashnikov guns that were fired by the actor-soldiers (they didn’t have access to props) attracted and drew fire from an actual battalion, leading to a real shooting match between the actors and militants. There’s an irony in these slapdash depictions of war, decidedly amateur-looking, often much more dangerous than the sets where other war films are made. Without the complex that can cleanly produce more “realistic” war in American films, the messiness of these Afghan productions is mired in the actual conflicts of the area: real war intruding on the construct to highlight the artifice.

What We Left Unfinished is more relevant than ever for American audiences during our not-unrelated discussions of how the American military industrial complex currently props up Hollywood, especially given that the most recent critical and box office smash is a litmus test for how much propaganda you can swallow in the name of cool stunts. With the current orthodoxy of studio filmmaking sucking up and spitting out the hottest new auteurs, it’s more imperative than ever that we look critically at where films come from and how even the notion of someone like Marvel working with “true artists” is a tactic to disguise the reproducing machinery. Ghani’s is a film that poses tough questions about the complex relationship between propaganda and true art, where the latter can become the former with only slight changes in context. American audiences would be good to keep it in mind the next time they’re at the multiplex.

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