Film Review: ‘A Flickering Truth’

Jay Weissberg

A documentary about Afghanistan’s at-risk film archive may seem like an unlikely submission as New Zealand’s Oscar candidate, but “A Flickering Truth” is a poetic tribute to a fragile cinema culture and its committed guardians. Pietra Brettkelly and her regular cinematographer Jacob Bryant spent two and a half years in Kabul and beyond, chronicling the precarious resurrection of Afghan Films and the determination of the organization’s frequently exasperated director Ibrahim Arify. With the doc’s evocative layering of damaged archival images interspersed with new footage chronicling the institution’s rebirth amid national instability, it’s no wonder Brettkelly (“Maori Boy Genius”) has been picking up awards ever since the film premiered in Venice in 2015.

For any cinephile, shots of a hole-riddled warehouse strewn with filthy unspooled celluloid and littered with rusted film cans are like a kick in the teeth. Nearby is the pit where the Taliban forced workers to toss reels into a bonfire, the partly melted strips still lying half-buried in the ground. Afghan Films, the national archive, opened in 1968 (with financial assistance from the U.S.), yet when the Taliban took control of the country, Afghanistan’s cinematic heritage was targeted as un-Islamic, like so much of the native culture.

Fortunately the Taliban’s methods were less than systematic, and in 2012, Arify was called back to his country from exile in Germany to head the archive and see what could be salvaged. The task involved not only safeguarding and cataloging what remained, but combating a work ethic as shattered as the Buddhas of Bamiyan. It wasn’t just the Taliban that dismantled what remained of societal cohesion — the Soviet years chipped away at the sense of individual responsibility and the concept of advancement.

For Arify, the return after years in Germany to a country he demonstrably loves but whose fundamental building blocks have been smashed becomes a deeply frustrating experience: Brettkelly shows him berating his staff and treating them with an uncomfortable (to Western eyes) condescension. Clearly he sees his role as twofold: bring Afghan Films back to life, but also re-instilling an understanding of how a workplace functions.

His model isn’t simply European; it comes from memories of life in Kabul in the 1960s and ’70s, when Afghanistan was thrillingly opening up to global cultural currents while holding on to a sense of national identity. We glimpse film clips of modish men and stylish, women disco dancing together. An actress in the archive tearfully watches her teenage self in a musical, the absence of a hijab tellingly contrasting with the necessary veil she wears now in a half-hearted manner. The message is clear, and isn’t limited to Afghanistan: How did we get here, after the years of promise?

In addition to the charismatic Arify, Brettkelly was fortunate to find the heart of her film in two disparate men: caretaker Isaaq Yousif, and gardener Mahmoud Ghafouri. For the former, the archive is truly home: he’s been there for 31 years and is the living memory of the place (although Brettkelly doesn’t tap into that memory as much as we might like). At first seen as a stooped, obsequious figure, Yousif comes to life as he reminisces about his youth, when he styled himself on cowboys, before being drafted into the army. The turbaned Ghafouri is a more reticent character, yet he’s the one who helped save prints during the Taliban era.

The documentary ends with a dextrously woven parallel editing montage: Arify heeds advice and returns to Germany on the eve of the Afghan election in 2014, while archive staffers begin touring the country with prints. It’s a bittersweet finale, in which Arify’s uncertainty about the country’s stability is contrasted with images of conservatively dressed rural populations watching with wonder films showing their society’s recent past, when women (at least in the major cities) could walk in the streets with their faces uncovered, and a sense of optimism pervaded the screen. Perhaps an acknowledgment of history’s cyclical nature is itself a qualified form of optimism; just as the Taliban’s attempted destruction of the nation’s film heritage wasn’t the first time cinema was attacked in Afghanistan (the documentary doesn’t mention that the country’s first Islamist ruler, Habibullah Kalakani, destroyed Kabul’s only cinema in 1929), so, too, a more open rebirth may follow in these uneasy times.

Brettkelly makes the unfortunate error of misdating Afghanistan’s first drama “Love and Friendship,” directed by Reshid Latif, which was made in 1946 and not 1936. In truth, she’s less interested in making a documentary about the country’s film heritage and more focused on the effort to preserve that culture, along with the effects of decades of instability and war. Visually, “A Flickering Truth” is always gracefully composed and elegiac, though Benjamin Wallfisch’s score too often sounds like the kind of innocuous, melancholy New Age music designed to relax spa clients.

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