A Flickering Truth
A Flickering Truth is a documentary so engrossing that it’s actually a little jarring. The story and characters are presented with almost no introduction and I felt completely disarmed—in a good way—right from the get-go, all thanks to the candidness of the subjects. A Flickering Truth didn’t need to hold my hand because the content just speaks for itself, and it has a powerful voice.
Directed by Pietra Brettkelly (Maori Boy Genius, The Art Star and the Sudanese Twins), A Flickering Truth follows Ibrahim Arify, an expat living in Germany who has returned to Afghanistan and is trying to resurrect the national film archive in Kabul. After the Taliban rose to power in 1996 they outlawed movies and television, closing cinemas and destroying films. However, thousands of reels were hidden, to be rediscovered later. A Flickering Truth captures some of these discoveries, which were buried underground or hidden in secret rooms. Arify sets out to restore the recovered films with the aim of exhibiting them publicly—but it’s clear that Afghanistan is still in real conflict, and the archive’s efforts are particularly vulnerable.
Brettkelly has such a light touch that it’s hard, now, for me to recall much of the presentation of the movie; I don’t usually think of documentaries as being so immersive, but A Flickering Truth is seamless. The nature of the film, the way it’s shot, and the candid access to the subjects create a tension with the conflict in Afghanistan; it’s always ominously present but never the main focus. Even though the war isn’t the subject of the film, it’s always clear that what will happen in Afghanistan is uncertain, and that the people working to restore the archives face a certain risk. This work that seems so harmless from my perspective—salvaging movies largely from the 1960s and 1970s—spells real danger for those involved. The lifestyles those films depict are severely at odds with the strict identity that the Taliban built for the country.
The movie is somber and at times heartbreaking. It might seem contrived, but I was hoping for some final great deluge of exposition that would assure me of the fate of the subjects of the film and of the archive itself. Of course that’s impossible, and I was probably only after it so that I could comfortably go back to being indifferent towards, or decidedly removed from, the conflict in Afghanistan. It’s unsettling to have such a candid perspective into people fighting for their own national identities while they’re unable to escape the reach of the war. It’s interesting to see Arify, who has the finances and the capability to leave Afghanistan forever, but can’t because it’s his heritage and his identity. I, on the other hand, can willfully disengage myself from thinking about it, even though as a US/New Zealander, my own governments have been directly involved.
A Flickering Truth also provides a moving insight into a setting that’s usually only defined by instability and war, whether in documentaries, in the news, or in fiction. While the conflict is a reality, the movie is really about the restoration of the Afghan perspective, and their agency over their own stories and stories about their own country. While the movie is an international co-production, the perspective of the film is allowed to be more intimately about Afghans working to restore their own place as storytellers for their own peers, and not so much about their showing it on an international stage. It might be a somber watch, but it’s full of inspirational people—I just wonder where they are now.