The human dimension of archives

by November 29, 2015
Mariam Ghani

Mariam Ghani (photo by Lyric Hunter)

A multi-disciplinary artist and activist whose work tackles themes like immigration, cultural and national identity, and film history, Brooklyn-based Mariam Ghani also explores the relationship between the artist and the archive, focusing in particular on the ethics behind archivist work – a performance called “radical archiving.” In an interview with SCOPE‘s Regina Corallo, Ghani talks about her ongoing project What We Left Unfinished and reflects on the process of how the past and present come together through imagination, political fiction, and myth.

REGINA CORALLO: Can you provide an overview about your work with the archives of Afghan films in your current project?

MARIAM GHANI: What We Left Unfinished is a long-term research, writing, film, and curatorial project about five unfinished Afghan feature films shot, but never edited, between 1978 and 1992. These unfinished films fascinate me because, like most finished films of the Communist period in Afghanistan, they all seem to take place in an imaginary People’s Democratic Republic that could have been, but wasn’t; but in the unfinished films, which were all either canceled by the state or abandoned by their makers, the realities concealed behind allegories and codes hover closer to the surface, more raw and easier to decipher. The off-screen reality, where the utopian project of the Afghan Communists was secured by violent force, seeps into the world onscreen.

What We Left Unfinished developed from my earlier work with Afghan Films, Afghanistan’s national film institute and archive, on a digitization initiative, screening programs, and critical essays meant to re-insert Afghan films into wider circulation. What We Left Unfinished also includes writing (about the films and about the process of working with an archive over time), and curatorial efforts (screening programs, exhibitions, and conversations organized around the original films and filmmakers). But it will ultimately become a feature-length film, a doc-fiction hybrid, that uses footage from the unfinished features, footage from unedited newsreel from the same period, and stories told by the filmmakers, cast, and crew to examine the gap between the stories being told onscreen at this time and the real history unfolding just outside the frame.

The period encompassed by these films includes the Afghan Communist coup d’état in 1978, the Soviet invasion in 1979, the years of conflict between the Soviet-backed regime and rural resistance, the Soviet withdrawal in 1987, the subsequent five years of reconciliation between regime and mujahidin, the handover of power to the mujahidin coalition in 1991, and their dissolution into civil war in 1992. The five films I’m looking at are: In the Month of Sawr (1978), a re-enactment of the coup d’état with the participation of the army and party leaders; Almase Siah/The Black Diamond (1984), a story about diamond smugglers who run a sideline manufacturing passports for people fleeing the country; Soqoot/Falling (1987), a cops-and-robbers tale that is a very thinly veiled fable about hyper-surveillance by the state security agency, KhAD; Kaj Rah/Wrong Way (1991), a film about reconciliation set in a border town divided by war and told partly from the mujahidin viewpoint; and Gomashta/Delegated (1992), which was actually financed by Masoud, one of the mujahidin leaders, and switches over to that viewpoint almost entirely.

Can you explain what “radical archiving” is? And what role does it play in your project?

Well, when Chitra Ganesh and I organized the Radical Archives conference at NYU in spring 2014, we were thinking about archives of radical politics and practices; archives that are radical or experimental in form or function; moments or contexts in which archiving in itself becomes a radical act; and considerations of how archives can be active in the present, as well as documents of the past and scripts for the future. I could also give you an explanation about the etymology of these two words that at first glance seem completely opposed to each other: in brief, “radical”, which we use now to indicate re-imagining or upheaval, also signifies a return to the radice or root, while “archive” derives from the Greek arkheion or town hall, which in turn derives from arkhe, the origin or source.

In the Afghan context, where iconoclasm (in its real sense, the actual destruction of cultural icons) has been such a strong threat since 1978, archiving itself becomes a radical act, because conservation goes against the grain of everyday reality. The institutional culture of the national film institute and film archive, Afghan Films, still operates in the mode it adopted during the Communist period and subsequent civil war, which prioritizes preservation of the physical films (and keeping those films in the archive) over any other imperative.

What We Left Unfinished both works within and against the institutional culture of Afghan Films — within, because it is interested in the camaraderie of the small studio system, and respects the preservationist impulse that saved so many films from destruction over the decades — and against, because it pushes back against the tendency to keep the more raw, complex, contradictory and controversial elements of that archive hidden from public view. I personally believe in preservation through projection, which is to say that if films are circulated out into the world, they survive in memory and legend even if the physical reels (tapes, files) are destroyed. Sometimes the myth of a film that no longer exists, but is whispered about by the people who remember it and the people they told, becomes more powerful than a film that still does exist, but has been filed away for so long that no one knows about it.

What We Left Unfinished hopes to perform a radical act of archiving by resuscitating film footage that has not been seen since it was first shot, and asking the filmmakers to consider what it might mean to finish their unfinished projects in the present.

It seems to underscore the notion of desire, doesn’t it? Not only a desire to make hidden and subversive elements of the archive accessible to the public imagination, working to extract the desires of the filmmakers, but also the notion that the archive itself desires something in return…

When I wrote in “Field notes for What We Left Unfinished” about trying to understand what the archive desires of you, before addressing your own desires to the archive, I was talking about the notion of reciprocity, which for me is quite important. When I work with an archive, I understand it not only as a repository of material, but also as an institution and as the community of people who make up that institution and who have created, selected, and annotated that material. “The archive” as an abstraction doesn’t necessarily have human desires but the human beings who actually construct, contribute to, and maintain archives do, of course, have human desires. And as an artist working with an archive, you are actually working with those people, so if you do nothing but extract material from that archive, without thinking about how the people who made, chose, or described that material would like to see it used, or thinking about how your use of it could somehow contribute to some other need or wish expressed by those people (for example, if your screening or licensing fee can fill a specific budget gap), then you are missing the whole human dimension of the archive. For me, the human dimension is always the point, because it’s always the element I am most interested in when working with any archival material, no matter the source. When I’m at Afghan Films, I want to know who wrote the notes on the film canisters. In the declassified documents Chitra Ganesh and I work with for our experimental archive Index of the Disappeared, which we source mostly from online repositories maintained by government branches and NGOs like the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, we look for clues in the language of the texts, for moment when the register of speech breaks unexpectedly from official to unofficial and a moment of humanity becomes visible, like a flash that illuminates the gears of an inhumane system. These moments become the keys to the entire Index of the Disappeared archive — indexes to the Index, as it were — as well as a kind of accidental poetry, fragments and signposts that we circulate into the wider world.


For more information about Mariam Ghani’s work:

What We Left Unfinished

Field Notes for “What We Left Unfinished”

Index of the Disappeared

Radical Archiving