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TIFF: 5 Questions for A Flickering Truth Director Pietra Brettkelly

A Flickering Truth

American independent filmmakers who moan over long-term storage bills, failed hard drives and misplaced optical tracks will receive the corrective they need to their First World Film Preservation problems by viewing Pietra Brettkelly’s new documentary, A Flickering Truth. Receiving its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, the picture follows a group of film archivists who have secretly fought to preserve Afghanistan’s storied film culture from the violence of the Taliban era. Below, Brettkelly answers questions about filming in a war-torn country, Afghan cinema and how her own archival practices have changed as a result of making this film.

Filmmaker: First, how did you come across this story and your subjects, and what motivated you to make a documentary film about them?

Brettkelly: I had spent time in Afghanistan in 2006 directing another film, but found when I left I wanted to come back, I was fascinated by this country.

As a filmmaker coming from one of the youngest lands in the world, New Zealand – safe, green and democratic – I was intrigued by Afghanistan with its literature and poetry, its old land and its deep history.

It was a hot day in the summer of Kabul 2012, more than three years ago.

I wondered what had happened to Afghan filmmakers — people like me — during these decades of conflict. There was talk of a slightly mythical place where the films of Afghanistan were stored but no one really knew what was there.

Attempts were made to dissuade me. Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt places in the world and I was warned that financial greasing of palms might be expected before I got access, and then who knew what was inside those sheds. I decided to investigate.

I’d been mentoring a young filmmaker couple in Afghanistan for a few years and persuaded one of them to come with me.

We walked miles through the dusty streets of Kabul, and were stopped often by security police to check my passport and his credentials. American forces’ helicopters hovered overhead and there seemed to be more soldiers on the ground. I felt a lot of tension. I wondered if a suicide bomb had gone off that morning.

The Afghan Film archives are in what is said to be one of the most heavily guarded roads in the world – sandwiched between embassies and the ISAF compound.

Police kept telling us we couldn’t go into this high-security area, but I persevered and pushed through, sweating under my heavy layers of clothing, only my face showing. Eventually we made it to the front gates of the Afghan Film archive. We were turned away by the gun-totting security guards, but I pulled out the line, “I’ve come all the way from New Zealand to see your films.” One person deferred to another and then another.

Finally an employee came out and said okay, come and meet our new director. Ibrahim Arify had just returned to Afghanistan, bought back from his life in Europe, going in the reverse of the Afghanistan diaspora, employed to transform the archive and save the films.

I think he was slightly incredulous by this New Zealand woman in front of him. But with the generosity that I would continue to experience over the following years, he said to me, “Let’s discover the films together.”

Filmmaker: What was your own knowledge of Afghan cinema before this film, and what’s your knowledge of it after? What stands out to you about Afghan film culture?

Brettkelly: Prior to making A Flickering Truth I had no knowledge of Afghan cinema but too much knowledge of Afghan news reportage. There seemed to be an imbalance over the perspective of stories that were coming out of Afghanistan over the last few decades.

It was such a wonderful relief and revelation when we started to see the films, that there was diversity of stories, social issues like abuse, drug use, rape were dealt with in film, and the representation of women was much more interesting than what I’d assumed. I’d heard that Kabul, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, was an interesting, vibrant centre with an openness, where women could study at university, could wear a greater range of clothes than today, ride bikes.

What I loved to see as more and more films were revealed to us was the cinematic influences and filmic styles had reached Afghanistan. I’d wrongly supposed that it was so isolated from all that. But the whip pan, the slow dissolve, the crash zoom, the flashback, I loved seeing all these wonderful techniques throughout their films.

I especially love the fact that the film camera was bought to Afghanistan to document King Amanullah Khan’s travels — that the first films were documentaries!

Filmmaker: The films being saved in your documentary were shot on celluloid. I presume you shot on digital. What steps did you have to take to secure your own footage while shooting in Afghanistan, and how difficult is it for your archivists to maintain a celluloid culture in a digital world?

Brettkelly: Yes we shot digital. We made numerous copies every night, and had them in Jake’s room, in my room, on our laptops, on drives. And yes we were in a couple of difficult situations where I wondered if I should be hiding the drives on my person.

I have previously filmed in Libya interviewing Colonel Gadaffi, South Sudan after the longest running civil war in African history, the Amazon during anti-logging protest times. I don’t go into conflict zones without knowing we will sometimes be in danger. Some instances that we know of [in advance] we can prepare for. But Afghanistan is an unpredictable place.

Jake Bryant, my Director of Photography, and I have always maintained a few rules that have so far worked for us. We avoid staying in hotels or official accommodation, seeing these as possible targets, instead preferring to rent rooms in people’s homes. We avoid employing security; we feel it brings attention to us. We travel just the two of us and a translator when needed, small, able to react and move quickly. And we never do the same thing day after day — routine makes it easier for kidnappers to plot their moves.

But what I learnt during the making of A Flickering Truth was I’m not afraid of dying; I’m afraid of the pain it might inflict on my family and friends. At one stage our car had broken down in Taliban country and we were stuck for hours. Our driver told me to put on my burqa and stay in the car. Jake Bryant, the director of photography was dressed like a local so he didn’t stand out. If it had become known that there were foreigners in the car, it might have been a different outcome.

Another occasion when I had edited the film to near completion I returned to Kabul to show everyone at the Archive the film so they can understand what I’d been doing the past 2.5 years.

One night I was back at the house I was staying in and there was a loud explosion, the house shook and then a brief silence all around, like everyone and everything was holding its breath. One of my flatmates said I should come downstairs for safety. And then the fighting began and continued around our neighborhood for the next five hours.

We followed it on Twitter as journalists were gathering information. After an hour I decided to return to my room, put my passport in my back pocket along with a wad of cash. I emailed Jake Bryant, my director of photography, who was back in New Zealand, about what was happening and my escape plan if anything was to happen. I knew he would understand and wouldn’t be alarmed by my email.

And then I lay in bed fully clothed, ready to run, with my head torch on reading my childhood friend Helena Wisniewska-Brow’s book Give Us This Day. Somehow the stories of home calmed me and made me feel connected to another place.

Over the years there have been other attempts to digitise the Afghanistan films but poor equipment has produced poor quality digital files and the films continued to deteriorate over the years. There is no safe storage. Even power is not constant as celluloid needs to be kept at a certain temperature. There is an urgency now to get a telecine machine into Afghanistan so they can capture the films before they disappear. Restoration of the actual films is financially too much, and there are even some reels that have not been processed because of costs and equipment. It’s still a mystery what is on some of the reels of film.

We tried always to film off the screen, to film the reels playing down. But it was also frustrating for me as a storyteller as I was never sure of all the films that they had [and] all the possibilities there might be for my film. I still don’t.

Filmmaker: Tell us about the storytelling style of your film. What went into your decision to tell this story the way you tell it?

Brettkelly: I am always attracted to personalities, to tell intimate stories that reflect bigger issues. And so initially I focused on who would be my main subjects. I found three very different characters and reflections on the archive and life in Afghanistan. Arify, the visionary, the returned son; Isaaq, the caretaker of the archives, had to adapt through the ages to different regimes to protect the films; and Mahmoud, the quiet gardener and unexpected hero who risked his life for the films.

I decided to use the films in three ways: as history telling, as reflections of my characters’s memories often prompted by them watching films, and as a response to exactly what was happening in Afghanistan at that time. I especially love towards the end of the film when we follow Mahmoud to vote for the first time in Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power, and Arify departs Afghanistan. I decided to use a clip from the first Afghanistan drama film, 1936’s Love and Friendship, a beautiful black-and-white piece of tortured love. Our hero is pacing his room: “My mind is so mixed up, I should forget her, Did I love her too humbly in order to face such a moment?” I hope the scene feeds into the strength of purpose and hope that both Arify and Mahmoud have for their country, and for the importance the archive holds in the re-building of their homeland, that they will never forget her.

And this is a key theme I would like the audience to walk away with: in the Afghan people I found the most resilient, welcoming people who for the first time in my career, never judged me over my right to tell this story, as a woman or a foreigner. I hope audiences see the openness and trust that was gifted to me and the power of the story we were able to tell, one of a people just like us but caught in decades of conflict, a people who cherish their culture and history and the films that have captured that culture.

Filmmaker: Finally, how has your own archival practice changed or been influenced by what you’ve learned and experienced by making A Flickering Truth?

Brettkelly: My thoughts toward archive have changed dramatically during making A Flickering Truth. Initially I was adamant we had to maintain the intentions of the filmmaker, be respectful of the length of sequences as they had edited them. Then I realised that for tone and pacing I needed to adjust the pieces of archive to flow through my film. I hope the Afghan filmmakers understand I’ve reinterpreted their work to some degree, but that each archive piece still offers a glimpse into the films that hopefully now more people internationally will want — and will be able — to see.

As I launch into my next feature film The Dress, one of my first thoughts was “I wonder what archive exists that I can use?” Archive is this wonderful source that can mean I’m having conversations with my fellow filmmakers across the decades, across time, across cultures. I love that.

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