Preserving vulnerable film stock is a challenge everywhere, but Afghanistan’s crisis is exceptionally severe. In her new documentary film ‘A Flickering Truth’ (2015), Pietra Brettkelly portrays the problem via the lives of men associated with Afghan Films, the state-run film company.
Afghanistan had an unorganized film industry until 1968. After that, Afghan Films helped seed an exuberant rise in the number of movies produced. In 1996, however, the Taliban began to take over territory in the country, and steadily destroyed cinema halls in their wake. Most of the country’s film stock was destroyed. Realizing the importance of the few remaining prints of their country’s cinema heritage, the men at Afghan Film conspired, struggled and endeavoured to save as much as they could. “They would ask us to burn the films. If we refused, they would wrap the film around our necks and threaten us to set it on fire,” one worker from those bad days recounts in the movie (he still works for the organization).
‘A Flickering Truth’ centers on Ibrahim Arify, who is back in Kabul from Germany, where he took refuge during the Taliban years. Back at the head of Afghan Films, he tries to “help reclaim Afghanistan’s cultural identity”. Though this authoritarian boss is generally disliked by his employees, Isaaq Yousif sees him differently. Uncle (as Yousif’s character is fondly called) stands asmetaphor for Aghan Films itself, old and crumpled, but nonetheless nurtured by a sense of hope and optimism. Orphaned at the age of 13, Issaq made the archives his family. Perhaps this is why the documentary opens with him.
Director Brettkelly portrays landscapes as humanely as her characters. Soulful visuals of the cleaning of an old warehouse of archival material are among the most beautiful and sad moments of ‘A Flickering Truth’.
As the documentary moves forward, we see Arify and his colleges cataloguing films, reviewing them and making plan to screen them across Afghanistan. At one point, Uncle Issaq dies, and yet the archive project continues to move on. The film moves on. Time becomes a function of reality, equally unforgiving to all. The finale sees Arify leaving the country under pressure yet again due to tensions brewed by the upcoming Presidential elections, but the Afghan Films team knows it must secure the archive, in case it comes under attack again.
With his precious reels packed to be sent away to a safe location, Arify returns to Germany, and the other members leave with a projector to screen the films across Afghanistan. Beautiful visuals of children watching a film on the big screen, overlaid on a haunting soundtrack, left this viewer with a lasting emptiness within. But perhaps the documentary itself isn’t the only thing that made the heart ache. Deep down, one resonates with its sentiments because of the larger truths they evoke. We too have forgotten to remember films as a major part of our cultural heritage. We too do not look after our priceless heritage as well as we should. Films are precious conduits of cultural memory. Their loss is an erasure of vital parts of our collective consciousness.
In India too, until P.K.Nair set up the National Film Archive Of India (NFAI) in 1964, 60-70% of the film heritage was already lost. Even though Indian film industry has been around for more than century producing an average 800 films a year, only 6000 have their original negatives preserved at NFAI. The severity of the situation demands a fresh cultural outlook towards the medium of cinema. To see it as an integral part of our cultural heritage and to look beyond the ‘entertainment’ narrative.
The Afghanistan from the documentary teaches us something about our own films. When they initially began making short documentaries, they only showcased them at the start of screening an Indian feature film in theatres. The universality of cinema makes it imperative for us to see it not just part of the country’s heritage but a significant part of world history. A common ground for a cultural exchange to arrive at common meaning of humanity.