The power of propaganda

In "What We Left Unfinished", Afghan-Lebanese-American filmmaker Mariam Ghani discusses the forgotten era of Afghan Communism and its ties to arts, culture and propaganda. Interview by Emran Feroz

By Emran Feroz

Many people, including many Afghans, have never heard of cultural propaganda from the Afghan Communist era. In your documentary "What We Left Unfinished", you discuss five unfinished films from that era. What did you hope to achieve by sharing them with the public?

Mariam Ghani: The history of the Communist era in Afghanistan is barely understood. I believe there are certain things that even people in Afghanistan are unaware of. Outside the country, people may know a little about the fight between the Soviet army and the mujahideen rebels, but they do not understand any of the complexity and the dynamics of the Afghan puppet regimes in Kabul, the role of urban elites and the kind of lives people were leading in the cities controlled by the Communists at that time. The story relating to this period is very different and complex – and it's rarely told.

Are these films simply propaganda, or do you think they reflect a degree of reality? There is always the chance that some might become nostalgic and assert that this was somehow original 1980s Kabul.

Ghani: They may possibly reflect the lives of a narrow group who referred to themselves as the "enlightened people", all intellectual elites, engaged in arts and culture. They wanted to model a life for other people, which is why they put it on film. I particularly enjoy showing this content in other countries. The reactions are always fascinating because the films simply break down peopleʹs preconceived ideas about Afghanistan. Having shown the footage, it is important to remind people that this is not how everyone lived back then and tell them to not take the footage at face value. Yet the films do present a fascinating vision of life and of the way some people imagined life could be in Afghanistan. Such imagery is very powerful.

Film poster of Mariam Ghaniʹs "What We Left Unfinished" (distributed by Wide House)
In addition to the premiere of "What We Left Unfinished", Mariam Ghani also screened three films from the Afghan Film archive that were restored and digitised by the National Archive in the presidential palace in Kabul and her team in the U.S. at this yearʹs Berlinale. According to Ghani and her team, they want to continue this trend and make sure that with each screening, films that have not been seen in decades are screened in major film festivals around the world

You interviewed several directors and actors from that time. Did you have the feeling that some of them romanticised the events from the Afghan Communist era? Did they downplay the brutality of the regimes? Sometimes it almost seems that the overriding concern of these people was simply to make films. One of them, for example, described the period as the "golden age of Afghan film".

Ghani: There were several contradictions in the stories I was told and this was one of the biggest. It is very difficult to expect anyone of whom you ask these questions today to tell you faithfully and precisely how they felt about things at the time, and what their real position was with respect to the regime.

These days, we know what was really happening. All the devastating facts are well known; they were well aware of this when we talked, especially with regard to my own family history. They were hardly likely to say to me "I'm a die-hard supporter of the Afghan Communists", knowing what the Afghan Communists did to my family.

What they were willing to talk about was what they were able to accomplish as artists at this time and that was the real thing. During that era, filmmakers had access to resources and all different kinds of privileges. Thatʹs why they found this era so exciting.

Some of the people I interviewed just adapted to whatever was happening politically, just to be able to continue working. Others left and decided to live in exile whe the political tide turned.

Then there were those who managed to stay put as civil servants over a period of many years. They survived all kinds of different regimes and have in effect become historical observers.

How difficult was it for you to retrieve these movies and to find the people who were involved in them?

Ghani: Finding some of the footage was complicated. Most of it was at the Afghan Film archive in Kabul. Other parts were stored in some states of the former Soviet Union. I was doing research in Moscow and I had people in countries like Uzbekistan and Tajikistan working on the ground for me. Some Afghan film footage also ended up in India and London. In the end, we were surprised by the amount of film held by the Afghan Film archive itself. When we discovered it, it wasnʹt even catalogued, so we did that too. Nobody had been looking for it, so nobody could have found it.Some people criticise that the Afghan Film archive has been moved to the presidential palace, emphasising that your father, Ashraf Ghani, also happens to be Afghanistan's current president. Why there?

Ghani: Afghan Film lost its building and as a temporary solution the archive has been moved to the National Archive Building, which is a new building that has just been constructed. Actually, it is the only building in Kabul that has proper archive conditions. It has climate-controlled rooms and vacuum-sealed cabinets and it is very secure. It offers the perfect conditions for storing such material. Unfortunately this building is within the presidential palace compound, which means the films are physically very inaccessible. Officially, however, anyone can apply for access to the archive.

It is said that the film archive is going to be digitised. When will this happen?

Ghani: The good thing is that the National Archive wants to make this happen as soon as possible. Everything will be digitised, which will be of benefit to Afghan films too. When it comes to sharing the films with the public, I think that this is the ultimate solution. As many copies as possible should be made of the material, stored in different locations.

Do you think that the films will be in danger if another government takes over in Kabul?

Ghani: I think it is possible. That is also one of the reasons why the digitalisation needs to be done quickly. Personally, I also want to see these films online, but not everyone agrees with that. Some people believe that it would reduce the value of the films if they were to be accessible on such a large scale. But I think if you want to preserve these films, people have to know them. It is important to share the films with the Afghan public, especially because a real reconciliation process never took place after the 1980s and the collapse of Communism. I think it would be a good idea to use the films to initiate something like that. Similar things happened in other countries like South Africa too. We can use films to start a process of story-telling and remembering.

Interview conducted by Emran Feroz

© 2019