Review by Camden Ferrell
What We Left Unfinished is a unique documentary if nothing else. It is the first feature length documentary from director Mariam Ghani. This is a documentary that analyzes an intriguing era of Afghan cinematic and political history with great insight from those who partook in these events.
The political situation of Afghanistan in the 20th century is a little too nuanced to discuss in depth in this review. However, this documentary analyzes five unfinished films that were made between 1978 and 1991, the country’s communist era. Using footage, interviews, and other archival footage, this movie tells the story of Afghan history, its regimes and how it affected the filmmaking industry in the country. This is an enriching story that sheds some light on an aspect of Cold War Afghanistan that many people may not be familiar with.
The movie benefits significantly from the testimony of the people who worked on these unfinished films. These people come from a variety of roles in film production, and they each contribute a unique perspective to the overarching narrative. Their anecdotes and experiences do a decent job at painting a picture of how the industry changed with the political climate in Afghanistan. One of the advantages of covering an era that was only a few decades ago is that the movie allows its subjects to speak on their experiences from a modern point of view.
This is an undoubtedly ambitious documentary, and it’s mostly successful. It’s a Herculean task to condense such a complex political history to a mere 70 minutes, but Ghani does this surprisingly well. While the movie suffers from feeling incomplete and not comprehensive enough, she does a great job of touching on the major events of this time period. Using these five unfinished films, she gives the viewer a decent understanding of Afghanistan’s history.
In addition to telling a story about Afghan cinema, the movie also serves as an analysis into authoritarianism, propaganda, and censorship. Again, the movie could have been significantly longer to explore these points more thoroughly, but the movie does a good job of including the most important parts. The movie also features some truly great archival footage from these unfinished films, and it goes a long way in elevating the narrative that Ghani is trying to tell.
What We Left Unfinished is a one-of-a-kind documentary that serves as a history lesson with many layers. Ghani’s direction tells this story in a very short period of time, and she impressively uses her subjects and footage to analyze Afghanistan and their storied cinematic history during this period of the 20th century.
What We Left Unfinished is in theaters August 6.