A Flickering Truth: Saving Afghanistan's Forbidden Films

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When director Pietra Brettkelly first visited Afghanistan in 2006, she was struck by the resilience of its people. During a return visit in 2012, she heard tell of a secret film archive, constructed to protect the country's old films from being destroyed by the Taliban regime. Brettkelly, who has made over 50 documentaries, including the acclaimed Maori Boy Genius and The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins, talked her way into visiting the archive, and the result is A Flickering Truth, a documentary that strikes with significance for its role in capturing the struggle to preserve these important films, which were nearly, literally, razed from memory. The film was well-received on the international festival circuit in 2015, and this week finally opened in theaters in New Zealand. Look out for it online in October.

How did you come to make this film?
I was in Afghanistan in 2006. I'm interested in places like Afghanistan, but in particular it was a place that struck me. I suppose because it's so different from life in New Zealand, and I like those kinds of challenges. But of course, I come from a place of privilege, being a New Zealander in the first world, and having passports and access to money. I say all this knowing that I do come from that position. I went back in early 2012, and I was interested in storytellers like myself, or yourself; what happens during times of conflict when you don't have the tools or the access or the freedom to explore the ideas you have? I know for myself, my ideas don't stop, wherever I am.

So I started thinking about those ideas, and talking to friends and somebody said to me, there's this place where the films of Afghanistan are stored, but none of us know what's in there, and you'll never get access. Then another journalism friend of mine said that he had tried to get access, but Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world -- so, this is not uncommon, but he said that it was run by a really corrupt guy who asked for $10,000 to even get in the door. I just don't pay for stories at all, so I said, well I'm not paying that. But I've been mentoring these two filmmakers in Afghanistan for many years, and they were with me on this particular day. So we headed off across Kabul. It was an incredibly hot day, and I was in all my layers of clothing, covering up, and we were stopped a lot as we went on our way. Our credentials were checked by police, and there were a lot more helicopters overhead than usual, and tanks on the ground.

I said to one of them, it feels like there's been a suicide bomb or something this morning, there's much more tension in the air. The next time we were stopped he asked the police and they said that Hillary Clinton had come into town. So I had chosen possibly the worst day to try and do this, but anyway -- we got to the area where the Afghan Film Archive is. They say it's the most heavily guarded street in the world. It's got ISAF on it, it's got a number of embassies, the presidential palace is around the corner. The main building that the archives are stored in was built by the Americans, so of course they built it within their kind of safe zone. We went through a number of checkpoints, eventually walked around to the front gates, and of course the guards there with guns are like, no you can't come in. I literally pulled out the line, I've come all the way from New Zealand to see your films.

They could see that I wasn't going anywhere. Eventually somebody said, alright come in and meet the new Director. It was just real luck that the guy who had been running it previously had been replaced by Arify, who's the main character in my film. I explained who I was, and what I was interested in, and Arify said, ok let's discover it together. He had just returned from exile in Europe; he had fled after he had been arrested for making films, 20 or 25 years previously. So he understood documentary, and understood what I was trying to do, and was open to it. And everybody else there was just extraordinary, it was this amazing experience. Over two-and-a-half years I went back and forth to Afghanistan seven times. It really was one of the most precious times of my career and my life.

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What did you find when you went inside?
They've got about 8,000 hours of films from Afghanistan there, made in the last 100 years. But then, as I've learnt, archives all over the world have other people's films too. Because foreigners go there, or diplomats or whoever, and they leave prints there. So there's actually 6,000 hours of other people's films there as well. Every day that we went they would just sort of pull films out of rubble, or out of these piles, and they'd thread them into the machines and we'd either see something extraordinary or they'd dissolve, they'd be such a mess. But there were some that had been in the ceiling -- they were still affected, but they weren't so bad as some of the others that were left in the rubble. In one of the films, it was black and white, and somebody said, does anybody recognize anything here? I said, well that's the Champs-Elysées in Paris, I recognized that, and then somebody else said, well that's the Tsar of Russia. Then some army troops turn up and we realized it was the first World War. I got in contact with the French archive department, and said, if you're looking for this particular print, it's in Afghanistan. Good luck getting it out of there, but there is this print. They wrote back and they knew of the film, and it was from 1915.

It was this magical journey where each day we didn't know what films would be revealed, and what would be found. It was really "needle in the haystack" stuff. There's just piles of films, and there's still piles of films that they have no idea what's on them. There was one guy who kept written notes. We started going through them one day, and then when I went back on the next trip, thinking that he and I could spend more time together, he had gotten political refugee status in Canada. He'd gone, and he was the only one with any kind of details at all. With him was this whole knowledge base.

The are three main characters in my film. One is Arify, the guy I was speaking of, and the second is Isaaq, who's this beautiful old man, who tragically dies during the film. He had actually been living in the buildings for 32 years, waiting for somebody to turn up and save all these films. The other character is Mahmoud the gardener, who literally was on the lowest rung at this place -- Afghanistan is a very hierarchical country. He had stayed during the Taliban era, and they had made him make a fire at one stage, and throw films on the fire. So he actually risked his life -- this is a father of 15, he lives in a really poverty-stricken area of Kabul -- and he built a fake wall and hid the films behind this wall, and then hid them in the ceilings.

That's what comes through, is this incredible love of film, and respect for film, and understanding of how important it is for their country. That was one of Arify's main purposes, to preserve these films because Afghanistan has, they say, possibly over 70 percent illiteracy. The oral word and visual storytelling are so important, and Arify felt that his country is at this real crossroads. That it was important to preserve these films enough, or digitize them enough, to get them out into the communities so they can understand who they were in the past, and who they can be in the future, and to understand each other -- because it's so tribal as well. That was his whole drive, and you see in the film what happens with that.

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I can imagine being a documentary-maker is not an easy path. What motivates you to continue?
It's bloody hard. It's just the drive that I have. I mean yeah, I financially risk everything, I physically risk everything, but god -- I wouldn't want to live any other way. I mean, I have an extraordinary life, I think it's remarkable. Any young filmmaker who comes to me and asks for advice, I tell, well nobody else has a more extraordinary life -- if this is what you want to do. If you do have this curiosity, which is the element of my personality that drives everything. I just get so excited about an idea or a thought, or exploring something visually, and off I go. With my cinematographer Jake. I'll call him up and see if he's free and off we go.

It seems that there's been a squeeze on funding opportunities for film, particularly over the last couple of years. Has that been your experience?
There's a squeeze all over the world. It's a really interesting time, because actually the biggest growth in theatrical audiences is in documentaries, in the last 10 years. I think the most exciting things are happening in documentaries as well, as opposed to drama or filmmaking. What people are doing with animation, or reenactment, sound design -- exploring different ways of projection, and interaction -- I think it's amazing. And VR is the next step in that exploration of storytelling. So there's that whole thing that the venues and the opportunities to get audiences have increased, and audience respect -- their reaction to documentary has become so much more encouraging -- but conversely, yeah, the financing has become so tough, and reduced hugely. With the advent of Netflix and Hulu and Amazon, all these video on demand opportunities, the networks' budgets are being reduced because advertisers are not going to them. Viewers are not going to them. So even the money you get direct from networks has been reduced a lot as well. It's a continuing, piecemeal situation of fundraising, all the time. Going to Afghanistan is the easy part, getting the money is the hard part.

You've worked with some pretty interesting crew, including the editor Molly Stensgaard, who's worked on most of Lars von Trier's films.
She's amazing. Because there is this degree of isolation down in New Zealand, and I'm trying to do something slightly out of the ordinary by telling international stories, I don't get Film Commission funding very easily. They would like to support me more -- but what I always do with each film is try and find a support situation that I can network through and workshop the film. With Maori Boy Genius, which was the previous film that was released at Berlin Film Festival, I got accepted into a program in Holland called the Binger Filmlab, and over the two years of production I went back and forth to Afghanistan and workshopped it. One of the mentors was Molly. I asked if she would edit my film, and she said yes.

There were nine of us international filmmakers in this program, and at drinks one night I just said it to her. I'd been thinking about it, and I was like, god how am I going to get up the nerve to ask Lars von Trier's editor to edit? She's mentored me since then. With Flickering we were in contact a lot of the time and then I went to Denmark and spent a week with her, and we went through some of the scenes that I'd already cut, and footage, and mapped out the film. With my next film Yellow is Forbidden, I'm intending to go there again in October. She's phenomenal as an editor; she just has such clarity as to what is a strong story. Where is the story, and where does it need to go?

A Flickering Truth is in cinemas now in New Zealand. It is to have its U.S. premier at the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History in New York in October.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified the start of Taliban rule in Afghanistan.