REVIEW: ‘Flickering Truth’ looks at efforts to salvage Afghanistan’s cinematic history

A Flickering Truth tells the story of a dedicated group of film archivists trying to save Afghanistan's movie history. Photo courtesy of Margaret Mead Film Festival.
A Flickering Truth tells the story of a dedicated group of film archivists trying to save Afghanistan’s movie history. Photo courtesy of Margaret Mead Film Festival.

A Flickering Truth, which recently played the Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, is an effective and poignant documentary about a dedicated team’s effort to save the archives of an Afghanistan film company. The group, led by Ibrahim Arify, attempts to find, categorize and restore old films, some of which date back decades and decades. Their efforts are stymied by the continued threat of terrorism in the country and the uneasiness of the upcoming election.

The access by director Pietra Brettkelly is remarkably all-encompassing. He follows his subjects through meetings, restoration processes, hiring practices, triumphs, setbacks, trials and tribulations. Within these 90 minutes, the audience gets to know different characters with distinct personalities and different views on the proper way to achieve the ultimate goal.

Perhaps the most interesting part of A Flickering Truth are the film clips themselves. To see actors and actresses performing in the pre-Taliban era can be quite an interesting experience. There’s also documentary footage of important chapters in Afghanistan’s recent history.

Of course, the many conflicts that have wreaked havoc on the country loom in the background. There’s discussion of the Taliban and the regions they still dominate. There’s discussion of the war with the Russians, and the present circumstances of the country, which still suffers from suicide bombers and lacking infrastructure, are ever-present.

There’s one scene in which the boss of the film-restoration process finds some workers to help with the many jobs at hand. He scrutinizes the new recruits who have come to the headquarters, refusing to let them bargain for a better salary. He’s harsh and to the point. His comments on how this hiring process is the new way to conduct business in Afghanistan.

The film could have provided more context on Afghanistan’s history. Although many people understand the turmoils, it would have been nice to contextualize the restored films with more historical information. It’s still unclear after watching A Flickering Truth what was allowed in the film industry’s heyday and what was discouraged — or even illegal.

There’s definitely a sense when watching the documentary that, if not for the efforts of these team members, many of these films would be lost forever. The actual film archives are in disarray; they are dusty and falling apart. The challenges ahead, even after the film is finished, are obviously mountainous. However, this dedicated bunch of cinema lovers keep their eye on the final prize: restoring their country’s history through the cinematic perspective. The same could be said for Brettkelly’s engaging film.

By John Soltes / Publisher /

A Flickering Truth (2016), directed by Pietra Brettkelly, recently played the Margaret Mead Film Festival in New York City. Rating: ★★★½ Click here for more information.

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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