2016.95: A Flickering Truth (Amazon VOD)
Made by New Zealand director New Zealand director Pietra Brettkelly, A Flickering Truth is a documentary primarily concerned with efforts to save and restore the contents of the Afghan film archive in Kabul, all but destroyed by the Taliban.
Early scenes are almost heartbreaking for any film lover- a filthy warehouse, walls and ceiling pockmarked by bullet-holes, contents choking under inches of dirt and dust, rusty film cans, loose spools of film scattered and twisted and torn and bleached by the sun. Fragile strips of film cast aside to ruin, a landscape for webs and spiders and cockroaches and ants. Nearby, a patch of ground where the Taliban forced workers to throw reels into a bonfire. Its hard to believe anything could yet survive.
This remarkable documentary film is an oddly disturbing reminder of the power of film imagery to conquer time and document historic events and culture. In truth, it is as much about the history of Afghanistan documented on those worn, scratched and faded reels of film as it is about the archive itself. Ghostly images from barely-surviving film flicker like dreamscapes onscreen; lost times, dead people, vanished worlds. A history of Afghanistan that I had been utterly ignorant of unfolds before me in a sad, emotive series of images from news footage and dramas that reveals a sense of place and history previously unknown to me. There is an Afghanistan that is surprisingly bright and optimistic and Western, one that was lost in revolution and war and religious fervour that plunged the country into chaos.
Efforts to document and clean up surviving reels bear fruit, and the archive begins to take shape. The intention is to take some of the archive out to the provinces (if only those that are yet safe from the Taliban) and project it to the populace, to both educate and entertain, and reveal to the people a lost Afghanistan that they too may be as ignorant of as I. But of course, Afghanistan is still a politically turbulent and dangerous country, always on the edge of chaos and civil war.
During the film we get to meet and get a sense of some of the people behind the archive- Afghan film-maker Ibrahim Arify returns from his new life and family in Germany to oversee the project, exasperated and angry at what has become of the country he knew in the 1960s and 1970s. Caretaker Isaaq Yousif, who has been there for 31 years, somehow surviving the wars and the Taliban, and gardener Mahmoud Ghafouri, who helped save much of the archive from the Taliban. They are engaging characters who will be hard to forget- indeed its evident that Yousif could have been subject for a documentary all by himself, as he reminisces about old times and his youth when he acted like an American cowboy. He’s some kind of character from some other world but nonetheless quite charming.
There’s a human story at the heart of this documentary and a strong reminder of the power of film imagery. Its well worth seeking out- free on Amazon Prime but I’m sure widely available on rental. Lovers of film in particular will be entranced by much of the imagery. Its strange how you can just stumble onto little gems like this purely by chance. There’s something to be said for just idly browsing all those titles on Amazon once in awhile.