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Loose Ends of Cinematic History

Artist Mariam Ghani on the mythmaking of Afghanistan’s communist past.

Mariam Ghani is an artist, writer, filmmaker, and teacher. Her artistic practice is based on research and spans video, installation, performance, photography, and text. She earned a BA from New York University and a Master’s in Fine Art from the New York School of Visual Arts (SVA). She teaches at Cooper Union.

She is continuing work on her long-term project “What We Left Unfinished” in Moscow where she is conducting research in collaboration with the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. This investigation delves into five unfinished Afghan feature films shot between 1978 and 1992, a period of both the Afghan Communist coup d'état and the Soviet invasion. Ghani will be working with Garage to gather archived film footage and explore how the Afghan War was constructed cinematically for the Soviet populace, and how it was framed for the Afghan people.

SGW: The state film archive of Afghanistan, Afghan Films, sounds like a positive goldmine of newsreels and unfinished feature films. When did you start using it as a resource? How accessible are the materials?

MG: Afghan Films has an amazing archive of audiovisual material that deserves wider attention. I feel very lucky to have worked with them for five years and to have gradually gained the trust of the community that has kept that archive alive – because it really is a community of people that has kept it going. 

They are working toward digitizing their archives, and I’ve been advocating for several years for greater attention to be paid to the films held in these archives.

So as part of my efforts to help them raise money for this project, I started writing about the films in the archive and curating screening programs. You know, to generate bits of income for them. And so I was constantly going back and forth to the archives and talking to them and trying to get more information about what was there. And at a certain point I started hearing about these unfinished films. And as an artist, you’re always interested in the unfinished things, right? Those are always the most intriguing things in any archive – the loose ends.

“Almase Siah” (The Black Diamond), dir. Abdul Khalek Halil (1984). Courtesy of Afghan Films

SGW: Sure, and when unfinished, are you able to view the process more clearly?

MG: Yes, I feel that the finished films from this period are also really interesting because they present this kind of imaginary People’s Republic of Afghanistan that didn’t exist anywhere but in these films. But the unfinished films, I think, are even more interesting because you have that, but then you also have real life happening around the edges.

There’s this contradiction where the dream world and reality are fighting each other in the film.

SGW: Which leads to the big question of why weren’t these films finished?

MG: Exactly.

SGW: You have been interviewing the people who originally worked on these five unfinished films. Are they all still available, have you been able to speak with them?

MG: Well, someone from each of the films is still alive: four out of five directors are alive, which is a pretty good ratio. For the first film, “The April Revolution,” there are actually very few people still left alive who worked on that film. The cameraman is actually the only one I have found. But he is still around, and he is also the director of the last unfinished film from this period, “Agent.” So he is kind of doing double duty in my project, talking about both of those films.

SGW: You are working toward a feature length documentary film – scheduled for completion in 2017 – how will these unfinished films be situated within a “finished” film?

MG: For the feature film I’m really interested in two major questions. The first being to look at the difference between the stories that were told on screen and the stories that were happening offscreen. Which is to say, the history that was unfolding just outside the frame, as told through the stories of the filmmakers and cast and crew. So it’s  about that difference between the idealized communist republic of the films and the reality of the lives these people were living.

And then tied up with that is a series of questions about what it means to be a filmmaker in a movement – what happens when you’re a leftist intellectual and suddenly the leftist party seizes power in a violent revolution? And what do you do as an artist at that kind of moment, and what do you do when this utopian dream of the left degenerates into a pretty horrifying reality? What do you do in moments of crisis and war? Because ultimately they end up in the middle of a real conflict.

There are all people who just love filmmaking so much – they went through so much to make these films. And at the same time they got so caught up in the myth-making of the party … that it is a really problematic set of questions that arises around the films made at this time.

They became targets of attacks against the regime, which is why it became so difficult for them to make films. Because the film sets would actually be targeted. There are complicated political questions around these films, which, I think, are really relevant questions for the present moment.

“Almase Siah” (The Black Diamond), dir. Abdul Khalek Halil (1984). Courtesy of Afghan Films

SGW: You would think that artists would enjoy a smidgen more freedom. Artists aren’t politicians – but here they are being targeted.

MG: Well, that’s another way in which the unfinished films are interesting – in a way they’re like failed propaganda. So, they do have subversive elements in them, and that’s another thing to tease out: why were they cancelled? What was it in these films that made them somehow unacceptable as myths? Why were these not the right myths for the moment?

There is certainly a lot of rich material in there to play with. It’s a big project.

SGW: How long have you been working on this particular project?

MG: I’ve been working on this for three years already. I’ve done different versions, in different forms. So I did an exhibition at Secession in Vienna, where I worked with archival images from the whole period and unedited newsreel from the beginning and the end of the period, and I made posters for the unfinished films, which was quite fun.

Then I did two screenings of short-film cuts of the (silent) rush prints: one with running commentary from leftist exiles, one with a live improvised score by local musicians from the free jazz scene. In one we looked at them as documents, in one we looked at them as films.

At the Met Breuer in New York, I did a screening of rush prints from all five films with live improvised scores. We had a break between each film for commentary and Q&A, which wound up being a very long event, as you can imagine.

Posters for “Wrong Way” (2014), “Falling” (2014). Courtesy of Mariam Ghani

SGW: And the project has continued in Moscow …

MG: Yeah – it’s a really international project.

At Garage in November, we had a screening of some of the unfinished films in Moscow, with running commentary from myself, filmmaker Alexander Markov and Gennady and Ludmila Afdiev, who worked in Kabul in the 1980s. There will also be a seminar on December 19th with Russian and international filmmakers and film archivists.

SGW: How much access did these Afghan filmmakers have to Soviet films? The films you are looking at cover about 20 years of filmmaking, yes?

MG: Well, from 1978-1992 – so about 14 years. It depends on the filmmaker because some of the earlier films are from an older generation of filmmakers who are more self-taught. And some of the filmmakers from the later films were actually trained in Moscow, so there is a distinct difference and you can kind of see it in the films also – like in the aesthetics of the films.

SGW: How does this Soviet chapter fit into the broader Afghan narrative? What sort of research will you be doing with Garage?

MG: For example, we’ve found an Uzbek documentary film, “Afghanistan: The Revolution Continues,” that contains some of the missing 40 minutes from the earliest film I’m looking at, “The April Revolution.” Egor Sofronov, who is the researcher working with me at Garage, found it in the Krasnogorsk Archive. Tashkent was a hub of film production at that time and all Afghan color films were sent to Uzbekistan for processing – it seems that some never made it out of Tashkent. It was rumored in Kabul that footage from “The April Revolution” found its way into an Uzbek film, and this turned out to be true. 

“The April Revolution” (1978-9) features the People’s Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (PDPA) leaders and the Afghan army, playing themselves in a re-enactment of the 1978 communist coup-d'état. Commissioned by the party leaders, it starts with scenes of the decadent rich contrasted with the misery of the poor prior to the revolution. It then, with loaned tanks, soldiers, and ammunition, recreates the day of the coup itself. There are 40 minutes of missing footage, which supposedly showed Hafzullah Amin and his family reenacting the famous scene in which he is under house arrest but he sends his young son with a message to the army, which triggered the coup.

“Afghanistan: The Revolution Continues” is also an interesting example of a Soviet propaganda film about the Afghan conflict, which incorporates footage shot by Afghan Films for their weekly newsreels but recontextualizes it with new framing footage and voiceover narration.

“Inqilabi Sawr” (The April Revolution), dir. unknown (1978). Courtesy of Afghan Films

SGW: The defeat in the Afghan War was a trauma for the Soviet society – some even say that it was a final crisis that led to the USSR dissolution. What is the contemporary representation of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan culture?

MG: Well, I think –  I can’t speak in generalizations, but there was a long period when no one really talked about that decade – that’s over. People are talking about it now. The other thing I can say is that, in general, outside of Afghanistan, people tend to conflate the Afghan Communist coup-d'état in 1978 with the Soviet invasion of 1979. People don’t realize that there is a year and a half separating those events, which is an important distinction – that Afghan Communism actually predates the Soviet invasion. The Afghan Communist Party was actually founded in 1965. There is a long tradition of Afghan Communism and an Afghan “left” that exists separately from the Soviet invasion. But, in many ways, that tradition and that history have been supplanted in the history of Afghanistan and in the popular imagination of Afghans themselves by what happened after the Soviet invasion.

This is something that some of my recent projects have been interested in – the idea of untangling these two things from each other: untangling the history of the Afghan left from the later history, of what happened after the coup of 1978 and especially after the invasion of 1979. I feel that we really lost the ability to place any value on the contributions of the Afghan left before 1978, because of what happened after 1979. I feel that that’s a pity – although a totally valid response.

Many members of my own family were put in prison by members of the Afghan Communists, and one of them was executed. So, I get it – I really get it. It’s a real thing how wrong everything went. It’s not an inflated response. But I do feel that it’s worthwhile to untangle how wrong they went from what the actual aspirations were before that. 

SGW: You describe Afghan Films productions (1967-1996) as having a “house style” that permeates fiction features (which incorporate documentary). Is this a style unique to Afghan Films?

MG: Yes, the “house style” has to do with this blurred boundary between fiction and truth. It’s so interesting. It really does seem like something that is very prevalent in Afghan cinema, and I have often wondered why that is. Maybe it comes from the approach to truth in Afghan folk tales, which is similar. In Arabic fairy tales, they always start with: “There was and there was not…” And in Afghan folk tales it’s similar: “This is one of 30 versions of this story …”

There is an acknowledgement in Afghan stories that the truth of any narrative is very subjective, and very dependent on who is telling the story – which has always made sense to me.