What we left unfinished (in progress)
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.
What we left unfinished developed from ongoing research in and collaborations with the archive of Afghan Films, Afghanistan’s national film institute, which has included both critical writing and curatorial projects. Research on the unfinished films began in 2014, with a Kamel Lazaar Foundation project grant, and continued through 2016 with support from Garage’s Field Research program. A first iteration of the installation and performance version was produced by Secession in Vienna as the exhibition Salon-e-Girdbad (Salon of the Whirlwind), one week of the revolving exhibition Utopian Pulse: Flares in the Darkroom, in fall 2014; another exhibition was held at 1after320 in New Delhi in summer 2015; a second live cinema event was staged at the Met Breuer in New York in summer 2016 as part of the film series The Unfinished Film; and two more screenings with running commentary at Garage in Moscow in winter 2016 and EMPAC in spring 2017. Mariam also presented the project at the Creative Time Summit in Stockholm in 2014, at MoMA C-MAP and the Creative Capital Retreat (see video below) in 2015, at the Dhaka Art Summit and Berlinale Forum Expanded in 2016, and at the Seattle Asian Art Museum in 2017. Seed money for the feature film has been provided by Creative Capital and Art Matters. The film will most likely be finished in 2017.
The research process for this project – gathering films, images, and people scattered by war – parallels the way in which the history of this period is gradually, gingerly being recovered in Afghanistan. The book planned as the final form of What we left unfinished will offer a space to bring together a number of different archival materials discovered during the course of research with writing that reflects critically on processes of archival reconstruction, historical speculation, and the political dangers of nostalgia.
Read “Field notes for What we left unfinished“ online at Ibraaz.