A Flickering Truth
R0 - Australia - Umbrella Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (12th February 2017).
The Film

“A Flickering Truth” (2015)

In 1996 the country of Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban government after years of unrest. The war torn democratic country became a country ruled by Islamic extremists, who took no time to destroy all the cultural heritage of Afghanistan. Whether it was historical palaces, modern technology, and arts including film and television, they were destroyed or outlawed entirely. The Afghan Film office was founded in 1968 to archive the film and television productions of Afghanistan. Their office was raided by Taliban officials and was ordered to destroy every work stored in the archive. Of the 120 employees at the office, two of them risked their lives by sneaking into the archive and hiding above the ceilings and other places for possible preservation. With the 100,000 hours worth of material stored, it was impossible to save everything. Certain films and newsreels that were deemed important for cultural history were hidden, but there was always a risk that the Taliban would destroy the entire building. Workers were ordered to bring cans of film and burn them to a crisp with death threats if they didn’t. Thousands and thousands of hours of material and decades of work were gone forever.

After the overthrow of the Taliban government at the end of 2001, many of the restrictions such as film were lifted but by then Afghan cinema was a non-functioning organization. There was no money, no resources, and no young blood as younger generations had no exposure to movies or entertainment for inspiration to continue a cinema tradition. There were some successful works of film to come from Afghanistan such as “Osama” in 2003 but like many other productions, money and support was from abroad rather than from within its own country. Current director of Afghan Film Ibrahim Arify was a former actor in Afghanistan who left the country for many years including during the Taliban ruled period. After returning he dedicated his time and effort to reinvigorate the Afghan Film office and especially to rescue the surviving films which were in a terrible state due to neglect.

“A Flickering Truth” follows Arify’s new purpose to restore and archive the cinematic past buried within the walls, ceilings, and dusty and dilapidated structures containing cans of film covered in dust, dirt, mold, and cobwebs. The trouble is that there is not a lot of funding or true interest involved and there is always fear of the rogue Taliban, suicide bombers, and war which could break out at any time. Some of the workers are not doing their job properly and Arify scolds them. Books are not lined up in the correct way, some people are sitting and watching the films projected rather than doing their tasked work, catalogued memos are not being catalogued correctly, etc. He must place his frustrations aside since he knows that there is more at stake than just angry employees. It is restoring a mindset of what cinema is to a generation of people who have never seen a movie and bringing back the lost culture to an older generation of former filmgoers.

“A Flickering Truth” is a documentary that chronicles the start of the excavation and restoration of the Afghan Film office to the struggle it took for them to schedule screenings for various films around Afghanistan to crowds including young people. It’s impossible to imagine for most people living in the civilized world in the 21st century to have never seen a movie and impossible to know what it would be like to watch a movie for the very first time. Films are an important way for cultures to know about their own past from decades prior. The non-narrative films that the archive rescued including shots of palaces destroyed by the Taliban, women without headscarves and wearing miniskirts, fashion shows, the Afghan President’s visit to Washington DC to meet American President Kennedy - these show what Afghanistan was like in the 20th century. And that is something that younger generations had never seen before or had known about. Arify’s conviction to stay in Afghanistan to make sure the work was being done and for cinema to continue again in his home country is a testament to his will. But it is not only him, it is also the many people that helped find, catalogue, and restore the films, especially the eldery Isaaq Yousif who lived at the film office for 31 years even after the place closed down. He stayed on and helped using his catalogued work from years and years ago. Unfortunately Yousif passed away during production of the documentary, but his work truly helped preserve the works stored there. The documentary shows the harshness of the environment. From workers that try to cheat with bargaining for more money, the ever impending feeling of war with military forces everywhere, and even one point in the film when suicide bombers attack the US Embassy nearby the Afghan Film office.

Censorship of the past and censorship of the arts and media is a terrible thing that affects quite a few countries around the world in various ways. The Taliban may have been the harshest of all and it is a shame that so much has been lost. Even with the estimated 8000 hours of footage in the archive now, it is far and away a fraction of the 100,000 hours of material that the office had back in 1996. Regardless of what was lost, hopefully what remains will spark interest in younger generations to make a new cultural impact away from the strict Taliban rule. And if “A Flickering Truth” is any indication, there is always hope.

Note this is a region ALL DVD in NTSC which can be played on any DVD or Blu-ray player worldwide

Video

Umbrella Entertainment presents the film in anamorphic 1.85:1 in the NTSC format. Shot on digital, the documentary footage looks quite good for the most part. It is very brightly lit so there are few instances of very dark colors to be shown in the presentation. It is sharp for most instances but there are quite a few out of focus shots and ghosting in a few of the motion shots which seem to be part of the originally shot footage rather than the transfer. Footage of the films rescued are mostly not from a telecine transfer but shooting directly from the digital cameras to the projected screens for most of the time so do not expect the footage to be clean. They are filled with scratches, debris, and all sorts of damage. There are some instances of telecine transfers but even those scenes are not in the best condition. Remember that it is a wonder and miracle that the footage survives at all.

The film’s runtime on the DVD is 95:16.

Audio

Dari Persian Dolby Digital 5.1
The original Dari Persian language track is offered in 5.1 which does seem like overkill for a documentary, but the track is fine. Dialogue is mostly centered while music and the occasional sound effects are used for the surrounds. It is not a heavy 5.1 track at all but it is a suitable one with no troubles of audio inconsistency.

There are burned-in English subtitles in a yellow font for the feature. It is a little difficult to read at times as the subtitles are in a light yellow color in a small font. There are no issues of timing, grammar, or spelling errors but sometimes the subtitles seem very short compared to what some of the people are saying at times.

Extras

There are no extras on the disc. No menu either, with the film starting with the disc entered into the player and automatically stopping once the film finishes. It would have been nice to hear from director Pietra Brettkelly and how she got involved in the documentary and about her career as a documentary filmmaker. Or possibly a reel of clips of films that were recovered. But alas, nothing.

Overall

“A Flickering Truth” is an important documentary about a film culture that most of the world is not familiar with due to political and logistical reasons. It shows how fragile and precious films are and the importance of film preservation. Umbrella Entertainment presents the film on DVD with a good transfer but sadly nothing for extras.

The Film: B+ Video: B+ Audio: B Overall: B

 


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