'A Flickering Truth': Venice Review

A Flickering Truth STILL - H 2015
Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
A dizzying journey through dust and rusty film cans in one of the most challenging countries to rebuild a film archive.

How the Afghan Film archives survived the Taliban.

A documentary not just for archivists but for those who see film as a vital part of local culture, A Flickering Truth traces Ibrahim Arify’s tenure as head of the Afghan Film archives in Kabul and his vigorous attempt to reorganize the place in the post-Taliban years. Pietra Brettkelly is a sure-footed New Zealand writer and director (Beauty Will Save the World, Maori Boy Genius) who communicates her passion for the subject to the viewer, despite the fact that little happens on screen beyond dusting off rusty film cans. It's the challenging context of war and instability that makes this unusual look at film preservation so watchable.

Arify’s forceful personality centers the story, which begins with his arrival at the dilapidated archives. Its vaulted halls are the reign of spiders and dust. Strips of film dangle from half-open cans. Undeveloped films are at risk, and there is work to be done.

The archive is still recovering from the trauma of the Taliban years, when film was vilified as part of decadent Western culture. The caretakers were forced to burn their precious films in a huge blaze, on penalty of death. Fortunately some brave archivists hid many valuable pieces of the collection in a room they boarded up, saving them from destruction.

Arify, a filmmaker who went to prison under the Mujahideen in the Soviet era, fled to Germany to live. Now he has returned to rebuild Afghan Film. Complaining that there are no enterprising people left in Afghanistan, he approaches his task like a general commanding undisciplined troops who need re-training. His first confrontation is with the aged Uncle Isaaq Yousif, who has been living in his office at the archives for over 30 years and is a precious witness to its films and history.

Though the unsung heroes never unearth a masterpiece, many delightful excerpts from old films are included. Brettkelly uses them to fill in the audience with a quick history of the country, from the golden age of the '70s when the U.S. and U.S.S.R. competed with each other, sending experts and tech support to a free Afghanistan, to the tragic bombing of Kabul in 1992, filmed by a cameraman on a bicycle, and forward to uncertain present times.

Fearing that the upcoming presidential elections could spark a civil war, Arify bids farewell to the personnel at Afghan Films and heads back home to Germany. He has repeatedly stated he "doesn’t have the courage" to stay on, and it is easy to see the situation is dangerous. In spite of this, a team of archivists drives off in the Afghan Films Mobile Cinema van, traveling to villages that have never seen a moving picture show. In schools, where boys and girls are segregated, they show passionate, unveiled women in classic Afghan movies, and the kids’ eyes shine with wonder, as though they were watching a Spielberg film.

Jacob Bryant’s gritty cinematography echoes the hands-on spirit of the archives, but also detours to the vast expanses of desert, a landscaspe of the soul and of the eye.

Production companies: PBK Ltd.

Director, producer, screenwriter: Pietra Brettkelly

Director of photography: Jacob Bryant

Music: Benjamin Wallfisch

Editors: Nicolas Chaudeurge, Irena Dol, Margot Francis, Ken Sparks, Jacob Secher, Schulsinger, Cinzia Baldessari, Cushla Dillon

Sales Agent: The Film Sales Co.


91 minutes