What happens to art when the political climate of a country is unstable and has an uncertain future? What if that art demands a lot of manpower and collaborative work and, of course, money? What is the life of a movie made under a regime that policies its content, when the regime changes, and new rules must be applied? Can art survive? Can art adapt?

It is impossible to make art that is not influenced by the time and place the artist lives in. Even if there is an effort to remove oneself from the current times, some of it seeps in. It was as impossible for What We Left Unfinished’s director Mariam Ghani to not let her heritage and experience influence her first feature, than it is to write this review in 2021, after months of rethinking how to make and distribute films amid a global health crisis and gluttonous streaming websites, and not be deeply affected by a film about conservation. Even more so with recent terrible news of authorities neglecting the archival of Brazilian films, that caused a terrible fire just last week in the São Paulo Cinemateca.

The archival of art is something that was already in my mind, just as it was in Ghani´s mind. She spent years of her life making sure these films survive, just as they did a civil war, authoritarian regimes, and invasions, and is co-creator of the Afghan Films online archive. She looked at the past to make something for the future.

What We Left Unfinished is not about now, but Afghanistan after the 1978 April revolution, and the years during and after the Communist regime that was installed. It is also about how film can be both fictional and non-fictional. Ghani is able to bring in an abundance of themes to her work, which is already a mixture of interviews, old footage of fictional films and hard historical fact. Looking back, it feels like a lot, but every piece belongs where it needs to. Footage of five different unfinished films, with heavy political messages, illustrate the story being told by actors, directors, producers and cinematographers that made those movies during the ever-changing authoritarian governments in Afghanistan after the 70s.

What We Left Unfinished presents itself as a documentary about documentaries. as it argues that these unfinished movies are such obvious portraits of the era they were made in. Because of the blatant propaganda that was not hidden under any subtext, the realistic conditions they were made in, and the people they portrayed that they are essentially documentaries. And not just in the broad sense of the word. The film productions often used real bullets in their fight scenes because blanks were not available. In one of Latif Ahmadi´s movies, he got the actual president of Afghanistan Hafizullah Amin in to act as himself, and have scenes in which his wife and children also acted as themselves. But above all, the films were documentaries because they took directly from the lives of the filmmakers and the country´s stories.

These movies were made in a time in which the government gave money and resources to filmmakers of all types of skills, but controlled the film’s content from up close. They believed in the power of cinema, and wanted to use it as government propaganda. But when the governments changed, what was left of that footage was hidden away, and many believed that it was completely destroyed. Ghani’s movie honours that footage, and the history of Afghan cinema, which is not portrayed in a black and white way. People differ in opinions, and ways to look at the past. But not one of them are judged for making very political movies, puppeteered by the government.

What other choice did they have? Not make movies at all?

Mariam Ghani shows us that this alternative would just have erased a complicated part of history. She refuses to allow the world to be robbed of those films, and as a viewer you will be so glad she has done this. The images shown are full of talent – on and off screen – and a lot of personality. What does put the audience off are the breaks made in between the interviews and old footage, to contextualize the historical timelines through written text onscreen. It stops the flow of the narrative, and makes a very compelling documentary slow down too much. Thankfully the stops don´t happen that often.

Towards the end of What We Left Unfinished, the director asks actor Faqir Nabi if he would finish the movie he was a part of, that was left unfinished for decades. He answers that because some of the actors were too old, or dead, that would have been very hard. The film would have to be reinterpreted, the script rewritten. That is exactly what Mariam Ghani does, she gives these movies life outside of the archive they were eventually found in, gives them a different narrative, and finishes them.

Rating: ★★

WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED opens in theatres and virtual cinemas nationwide (US) on Friday, August 6, 2021.