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As part of the Archival Constellations programme, the Forum is showing Mariam Ghani’s documentary What We Left Unfinished, which is about a series of unfinished films made in Afghanistan between 1978 and 1991, as well as Hamas-e eshq (Epic of Love), Baba and Khan-e tarikh(House of History).

Artist Sandra Schäfer works in the fields film, video installation and photography. She is interested in the margins, gaps and discontinuities in our perception of history, political struggles and geopolitical spaces. Forum Expanded showed video works of hers in 2016 and 2017.

Filmmaker Siddiq Barmak described the short and varied history of Afghan cinema as one in which “each historical and political change engendered its own specific films.” He was referring to the numerous political changes in his country and the censorship these brought with them, forcing filmmakers to work around the limitations.

The first Afghan feature film, Ishq wa dosti (Love and Friendship), was initiated by two newly unemployed actors from the group “Theatre of Education,” whose institution had already been shut down in 1945 by the government because of a previous politically unwelcome production. Since it was not possible to produce in Afghanistan, they shot the film as an Afghan-Indian co-production in Lahore under the direction of Rashid Latifi. In this love story with singing and dancing, the female roles were played by Indian actors, since women in Afghanistan at the time were not allowed to act professionally.Love and Friendship met with an enthusiastic response when it first screened in Kabul in 1951. It was the first time the public had seen a film in which the local Dari language was spoken.

In 1964, the first film shot entirely in Afghanistan opened: Manand-e oqab (Like an Eagle) by Khayr Zada, a combination of narrative and documentary film. Shot on 16mm, the fictional frame story concerns a little girl who comes to Kabul from the countryside with her parents in order to watch the independence celebrations. She loses her parents in the throng, and her search allows the film to show a new Afghanistan: the different trades, the production of cars in Kabul, the manufacturing of new clothes for women. That same year, Asefi Satorzada made his short documentary Kabol Pantheon University (University Kabul) about the opening of a modern campus in the western part of the city, funded by the US government. The university was one of the largest in the Middle East until it was destroyed during the war.

Starting in the late 1960s, many filmmakers left the country to learn their craft at the film school in Moscow or at the Pune Institute in India. Several of these young alumni began work on the three-part omnibus film Rozgaran (Everyday Lives) in 1968. The first episode, Talabgar (The Suitor) by Khaleq Halil, is devised as a comedy, with an imposter trying to obtain upward mobility by marrying the emancipated Sima. She rebels against her parents’ values, however, and resists the marriage. We see a modern bungalow with an abstract painting and a concert by the singer Roshana in the Hotel Intercontinental. At the end the scam is exposed. The second episode, Qachaqbaran (Smugglers) by Sultan Hamid Hashem, was shot in the style of Hitchcock. It tells the story of a policeman who arrests all smugglers, creating the impression of a safe country. The third episode, Shab-e joma (Friday Night) by Mohammad Ali Rownaq, is a drama with comedic elements modelled on Iranian and Italian cinema.

As the Soviet influence began to make its presence felt in the early 1980s, private film production came to an end. The only remaining institution was the state film institute Afghan Films, which was controlled by external Soviet censors. Mariam Ghani’s What We Left Unfinished (Forum 2019) looks at five films made between 1978 and 1991 and left unfinished due to various changes with regard to the governing political regimes. In dialogue with the filmmakers, the director shows how they pursued their passion for cinema despite censorship and threats. A contradictory image of communist state visions emerges, with the filmmakers being depicted as having to navigate the necessities of commissioned political work and their desire to be faithful to reality.

It was during this phase that filmmaker Latif Ahmadi made his film Akhter-e maskhara (Akhter, the Clown) in 1981. Ahmadi contrasts the impoverished conditions in Kabul’s old city, home of the friendly and naïve Akhter, with the fashionable bungalows and modern lifestyle of the affluent neighbourhood of Shar-e nau. The film, which ends in tragedy, uses its comedic elements to critique Afghan society. 1989, Hamas-e eshq (Epic of Love) was released, also directed by Latif Ahmadi. The historical epic is about a multi-generational family feud and two lovers who defy family traditions and pay a high price. Dramatic buzkashi contests and love scenes amongst the blooming poppy fields of Mazar-i-Sharif are accompanied by an ornate soundtrack featuring synthesizer music and solos by Tabla and Rabab. Sabera Arash plays the brave Masari, accompanied by her friend Pari, played by Yasamin Yarmal. The film is still popular in Afghanistan today and is shown on television every year.

Beiganeh (The Stranger), Siddiq Barmak’s 1986 graduation film at the state film school in Moscow, addresses class relations. Torn between tradition, religion and social prestige, farm labourer Morad succumbs to pressure from the village leader and his American guest to have his wife Sanowbar sing for them. When his wife disappears, he goes to the ruler’s house. Ten years later, amidst the political turmoil of the civil wars, director Qader Tahiri used footage shot by eight different cameramen to make the documentary Khan-e tarikh (The House of History). The film begins with aerial and tracking shots showing the effects of the civil wars on the city of Kabul: ruins and deserted streets, the internally displaced queuing up for food in a temporary camp, injured people being treated in a hospital, pupils crowding into a school. The majority of the film is devoted to the Afghan National Museum and the cultural heritage destroyed by war. Footage shot in 1973 and ’74 shows the intact artefacts before their destruction. In a sequence filmed in 1990, the deputy director of the museum talks about its construction in 1931 and how artefacts had been plundered by Europeans up until 1922. Museum staff are shown sorting through the destroyed objects in 1992. Since then, brick walls have been erected in the museum to protect the artefacts from looters. The precarious cultural heritage of the country, which date back to the Palaeolithic and has been threatened again and again by iconoclasm, is thus at the heart of Khan-e tarikh.

After the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, filmmakers returned from exile and began working again together with those who stayed. Director Siddiq Barmak, for instance, shot the feature film Osama in 2002 and 2003, winning a number of international prizes. Set during the Taliban period, it is about a girl who works to support her mother and grandmother disguised as a boy. The film, shot with non-professional actors, paints a grim picture of the Taliban period.

For the first time now, women are starting to make films and tell stories from their own perspectives. Among them are Roya and Alka Sadat, Shakiba Adil, Saba Sahar and Diana Saqeb. Roya Sadat made her feature film Se noqta (Three Dots) in 2004. This melodrama revolves around a single mother rebelling against traditional family structures. In 2007, Diana Saqeb made the documentary 25 Darsad (25 Percent) upon returning from Iran. It portrays six female parliamentarians actively engaged in their country’s politics despite their obligations as wives, mothers and daughters in a traditional and male-dominated environment.
Today, disillusionment is growing in Afghanistan with respect to Western “help” as and local politics. The deteriorating political situation has meant that some filmmakers have had to go into exile again. Those who have remained face targeted threat and have to deal with ever more precarious working conditions. But within the limits of what is possible, they are still trying to continue making films nevertheless.

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