People go to insane lengths to complete five unfinished films from the Communist era in Afghanistan.
What We Left Unfinished is a long-term research, film, exhibition and book project centered around five unfinished Afghan feature films shot, but never edited, between 1978 and 1992: years that encompass the Afghan Communist coup d’état, attempted reforms that met bitter rural resistance, a series of internal purges and assassinations, the Soviet invasion and withdrawal, a five-year attempt at national reconciliation, the handover of power to a mujahidin coalition, and finally dissolution into civil war. From the unfinished films commissioned, produced and canceled by various iterations of the Afghan state, in various moments of the Afghan Communist project, we can reconstruct not the truths, precisely, of how the state existed and acted in those moments, but rather its most important fictions: its desires and fears, ambitions and ghosts. In the imaginary presented by most finished films of the period, we see the ideal People’s Democratic Republic that could have been, but wasn’t; in the unfinished films, the reality – a utopian project secured by violent force – lingers like a shadow, just barely concealed behind allegories and codes. The world around the films, where filmmaking itself was a dangerous enterprise, seeps into the world onscreen.
What We Left Unfinished uses these feature films, along with raw newsreel footage from the same period, to examine the three major unfinished political projects of the Afghan Communists – revolution, reform, and reconciliation – and consider how the unfinished projects of the past haunt the present. The project has several overlapping forms/phases: first, research into and writing about the films, filmmakers, and communities around the films; second, making short-film cuts of the silent 16mm rush prints (the only footage available in Afghanistan), and screening these as the starting point for both performances of live improvised film scores, and conversations with people who lived through the period or have studied its history; and finally, tracking down the original 35mm color negatives, and then (based on conversations with the original filmmakers), constructing a new feature film that toggles between the stories in the films and the stories behind and around them – as told by the filmmakers, crew & actors in interviews – as a way to depict simultaneously the fiction and reality, dream and disintegration of the Afghan Communist project.