“When Winston Churchill was asked to cut arts funding in favour of the war effort, he simply replied “then what are we fighting for?”
-popular internet quote
A Flickering Truth is the first documentary I saw at the VIFF. I’m a bit mistrustful of documentaries but this was an eye opener.
The film opens with some Afghani men looking for a job. The job pays lousy even with their pay boosted 4 times the amount of their original offer. The boss, Ibrahim Arify, seems like a dictator giving orders and belittling his workers and his abilities. Then you see what business this is: Afghan Film. Over time, you see what their mission is. Their job is to restore many old films to show the Afghani people on a national tour.
Over time you will see this is no vanity effort. Afghan Film is more than just a film company. It’s a building archiving both the entertainment films and film footage of news events. Inside the building of Afghan Film are films that had to be kept in private rooms and hiding places. We’re dealing with film in a country that has gone through corrupt tyrannous rule for about half a century. The company came about while Afghanistan had a king. The king was friendly and helped the Afghani people mostly live well despite their impoverished conditions. Then he was deposed in a coup d’etat by his uncle in 1973 and it was downhill from then on. More than five years later his uncle was hanged and the Soviets invaded. The Soviets left in 1987 and the Mujahideen took over. Then the Taliban in 1996. After war was declared to oust the Taliban, Afghanistan became a democracy and more freedoms were restored. But not without daily threats on people’s lives that continue today. Even standing in a line-up to vote in an election is a threat on your life. That’s Afghanistan.
Afghan Film was a company that was under thread of the constant regimes and the tyranny that came with it. As we watch Arify get the project under way, we learn what type of films Afghan Film has kept hidden and has ready to show. They show archived footage, mostly in black and white of Afghanistan’s moments of history from military marches on camelback in the 1930’s to footage of the king’s visit to Washington in 1963 and a warm reception from President Kennedy to footage of the royal family swimming at the palace to even the most brutal aftermaths of war and political upheaval. Their final film footage was of the 1996 hanging of President Najibullah by the Taliban.
Afghan Film is not just film footage. They also have archived many entertainment films they’ve had hidden. Many of the films were of war dramas but there were also many romance films. They even archive Afghani films made during the silent era of the 1920’s and even a drama made back in 1936: films that came to be long before Afghan Film was founded.
What Afghan Film was saving this whole time was a part of Afghanistan’s cultural and historical identity. What their saving it all from and why becomes very obvious over time. Seeing of what the films of archive and entertainment contain are easy to see why the various political regimes and especially the Taliban would consider it a threat. We see films of kings and rulers, of luxury, of fields of poppies, of feelings of love, of conscientious thought, and even women without burkas or veils. Seeing the images and one’s knowledge of the Taliban can easily see why the Taliban would consider it a threat. In fact, film or even television entertainment of any kind was not allowed during their control of the entire country. Much of the film we see in the documentary is only a small portion of the film from Afghanistan. Most of Afghanistan’s films have been burned by the Taliban. All those hidden films they bring out and even recover in hiding places are the lucky ones.
We see the importance of saving the films. We also see the huge task of restoring the films and having them ready to show the crowds. It’s a challenge as they can only do so much themselves. Sending them off to foreign countries to do it for them is also a challenge as restoration is not always guaranteed. There’s one scene where one film which was sent to South Korea for restoration makes it back unrestored because the company was too busy The company did send a letter of apology. They show the difficulty of planning the national tour. Sure, the Taliban doesn’t control the whole of Afghanistan anymore but there are many areas especially around the border of Pakistan where Taliban control remains. We’re even reminded of the current situation of Afghanistan when we see the shattered glass of the former Afghan Films president’s apartment from a bomb blast.
The restoration and national exhibition of the films are not just simply a mission but also a mission of personal nature for the past president Isaaq Yousif and his successor Ibrahim Arify. Yousif has been president of the company for many decades. He was orphaned at 13 and was never matched with a woman in his lifetime. The film was his life. We see films he acted in when he was younger. He’s one who has survived the various regimes and civil wars in the country. There was a time the Afghan Film office was even his personal home. Ibrahim Arify was luckier as he fled Afghanistan in the 1980’s to live in Germany. He married an Afghani woman and had three children. His wife and two of his children are afraid to set foot in Afghanistan. Life in Germany helped make Arify a good business man and admires those of his colleagues that stayed behind, even those that were killed. The mission is almost like a ‘passing of the torch’ from Yousif to Arify especially since this happens during the last year of Yousif’s life. We even see Yousif’s grave.
The restoration is completed and the films make their tour. Arify has to return to Germany as Afghanistan is holding an election and foreigners risk having their lives threatened. The tour starts in Kabul and will be an outdoor showing. Security is there. Popcorn is popped. The crowd enjoys what their seeing. The tour visits many town halls and schools and is a huge success and shows promise for the future.
The most revealing moment of the documentary comes at the end when the people are watching the films. All this that has survived regimes and destructive wars. As the films are shown, the cameras focus on the people viewing. The most profound images are those of the children. They’re watching images of times when Afghanistan was prosperous, films of people not afraid to speak their emotions and women not restricted to what they wore. As the children watch, who knows what confidence it will give them towards their own future?
This documentary is a revealing introspect from Pietra Brettkelly. She not only shows us the films but the people behind restoring them and the country that’s it’s taking place. It’s like we’re looking inside-out into Afghanistan, what the country is been through and why this is so important. Hearing Arify and Yousif talk about the country and its history in both its positive and negative aspects sheds a light on what we’re dealing with. Hearing Arify describe the Afghani people as lazy by nature does get you thinking too: “If the Afghani people weren’t so lazy, the Taliban wouldn’t have lasted a week. People think I act like a dictator. You have to be like a dictator to get the people to do their job right.”
Actually that was a quality Brettkelly included where she lets the men in the film tell their story. Even the female actors of films past give a unique introspect. The film is an excellent documentary that appears put together very well. I don’t know if it tells the whole history of Afghani film but it tells a lot. It even presents the events leading to the exhibition in a very good manner. It may appear a bit disorganized at times but it does it very well.
A Flickering Truth may not stand out from many documentaries as we know it but it does show something unique and a story that deserves to be told. It almost makes those words from Churchill, whether he really said them or not, look very true here.