Film history and culture is so ubiquitous in the western world that it is often taken for granted. There are museums spending millions on restorations and archiving interviews, scripts, props, and any number of other details relating to the film industry. However, what happens in countries whose culture of film has crumbled? Two films at the Berlinale turned their lens’ on this issue, WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED, a part of the Forum Archival Constellations section, and the Glasshütte Original Documentary award winner TALKING ABOUT TREES.
During the communist regimes of Afghanistan between 1978 and 1991, there was a lot of money for the film industry. Hundreds of films were produced and despite some cultural pushback, a budding film industry emerged, albeit one that faced rules of propaganda and censorship. WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED takes a look at five unfinished films from this period, interviewing the filmmakers and actors involved. It presented a fascinating look into a period of Afghanistan where the urban populations looked very similar to the West, but the political climate was in a constant state of flux. These films were all abandoned for political reasons, often due to changes in leadership, however it still quite impressive to see some of the cultural commentary they were making. Stories about rebels, the drug trade and interpersonal relationships were developed and filmmakers did their best to relate reality even despite strict censorship rules. It seemed, for a time, like there might be a chance for a film culture to develop. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be, and now Afghanistan is far removed from being capable of either wanting or having the resources to sustain such an industry.
TALKING ABOUT TREES is more focused on the modern state of cinema in Sudan. The Sudanese Film Club is made up of four old men who are trying to revive interest in film in their country. Each member was lucky enough to receive their education abroad and a few, such as Suliman, had some success at international film festivals in the ‘70s and early ‘80s. Following the military coup in 1989, all filmmaking ground to a halt and several of the men were tortured and had to live in exile. They are now back in Sudan hoping to appropriately archive deteriorating films and bring a culture of a film back to the country by putting on free, public screenings of popular movies. Every step of the way there are stumbling blocks put up by the government and it seems hopeless that the Sudanese Film Club will ever manage to make an impact. Yet, the passion of these men makes it clear that they will keep trying to protect the art that they love and hope to bring appreciation of it to future generations.
The future of film culture in Afghanistan and Sudan is unclear. Both struggle with political instability to this day and there are significant cultural barriers which also stand in the way of progress in the arts. Nevertheless, as WHAT WE LEFT UNFINISHED and TALKING ABOUT TREES highlights, there are those out there willing to protect and highlight film culture even these countries and so there is always hope that at some point in the future these rich and dynamic cultures will also make an impact in field of film. Here’s hoping that documentaries such as these bring some power and confidence to those who continue to struggle for their artistic freedoms in difficult landscapes.