Sifting through scrubland near an abandoned warehouse a man cradles the burnt remains of celluloid film stock and speaks of their destruction by the Taliban: “They burned the films. They killed them. They bled into the ground.” Like the lament of this eloquent subject, A Flickering Truth tells of the destruction of Afghan cinematic culture with a visual and lyrical language that, in remembering, rediscovering, and conserving the work of the Afghan Films Archive – led by Ibrahim Arify – stands as a vital example of maintaining cultural heritage for a fragile national identity.
Some may have been lost, seeping into the earth, but images viewed – many for the first time – teach and expose elements of a past the Taliban sought to destroy, allowing a flicker of hope for the future of an unstable, menaced society. Thanks to the plentiful footage unearthed by a dedicated, defiant team from secretive Kabul headquarters – some of which was even hidden above roof panels, New Zealand director Pietra Brettkelly’s documentary harks back to an era of royalty long before the Taliban’s overthrow, through their reign of terror, to modern day where there is an ever-present threat.
Military personal, helicopters and “bad guys” – those we are led to believe are sympathetic to the Taliban – revolve around the periphery, an explosion at one point blasting out windows of the building in which their secretive work is carried out. Arify, who years previously fled to Germany fearing for his life and that of his family, returns to Afghanistan to lead the restoration of the archive. Resolute but wary of the dangerous undertaking – “Bravo to those who stayed here” – he faces bartering from potential employees, thorough disorganisation and an apathetic people too easily suppressed: “One needs to be a dictator to get anything done.” Kabul nonetheless remains in his heart and Arify’s nostalgic reverence for his hometown and entourage is palpable and infectious.
Arify is forced to leave in the run up to fiercely contested elections, but quietly raising a collective fist ever higher the remaining team members hit the road for a touring film festival. In this final sequence Brettkelly superbly captures the enchantment and wonderment on faces of viewers young and old in former Taliban strongholds who may have never before beheld such a spectacle. A Flickering Truth is an historical journey, a love letter to Afghanistan, its cinema and people, offering a very different, inside view of a country whose position on the world stage is so often relegated to perpetual conflict. Conflict does remain here but Brettkelly’s film also shows a spirit and determination to overcome which will not be extinguished.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens