‘What We Left Unfinished’ Review: Spectres of History

In “What We Left Unfinished,” five movies started and then abandoned during Afghanistan’s Communist era, between 1978 and 1992, form a dazzling time capsule of the nation’s political and cultural history. The director Mariam Ghani — the daughter of Afghanistan’s current president, Ashraf Ghani — digs into the archives of Afghan Film, a state-run company that endured the whims and demands of various regimes before the Taliban destroyed most of its holdings in the 1990s.

Culled from the remnants of the company’s collections, the films Ghani remixes in “What We Left Unfinished” bear the traces of successive political upheavals. “The April Revolution” (1978), for instance, was commissioned by Hafizullah Amin, who became Afghanistan’s president in a 1979 coup. When the Soviets assassinated him months later in a takeover, the film had to be shut down.

In interviews, the filmmakers and actors involved in these movies recall their struggles with strict ideological dictates and censorship, but also the generous resources that propaganda-hungry governments lavished on them. The snippets we see are beautifully lit and produced — some feature big explosions and shootouts involving real soldiers wielding real Kalashnikovs.

“What We Left Unfinished” doesn’t dwell too much on the nuts and bolts of the making of these films, which is a pity, because they offer tantalizing glimpses into a cinematic culture whose formal ambitions seem to have been unstinted — and perhaps even encouraged — by political pressures. But Ghani’s mode is less interrogative than associative. Her montage of film fragments illustrates and sometimes poetically belies the interviewees’ recollections, evoking the ambiguous and unresolved contours of collective memory.

What We Left Unfinished
Not rated. In English and Dari, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 11 minutes. In theaters and on virtual cinemas.

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