Contentious Archives: The Afghan Films Archive and the Israeli Archive of Executions

Ann Stoler writes that “to understand an archive, one needs to understand the institutions that it served” (Stoler 2002, 107). By understanding that archives are linked to, or part of a larger institution or state power, it becomes clear that archives are not simply stores of histories holding information which has been deemed important and valuable, but part of a larger web of power and bureaucracy. While archives do play an important role in preserving information, they are also responsible for how this information is positioned in the context of history. In “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” Stoler describes the link between archives and state power as one which is mutually dependent. Through an ethnographic approach to studying archives, the relationship between archives, politics and forms of governance is made obvious and therefore showing that the organisation, accessibility, and information within the archive always has political significance. By using Ariella Azoulay’s article “Archive” and Mariam Ghani’s long-term research project “What We Left Unfinished” I will look at the influential role archives have in knowledge creation but also their role in forming, sustaining, and asserting political and state power. Often acting as an extension of the bureaucratic state, the decisions regarding what gets archived and how it gets archived are telling of the political issues and contestations of the times. Through these two examples, it can be seen that moving information into, and around, the archive is not passive or arbitrary but often a protective and/or violent means of controlling information and its circulation.

In the article “Archive,” Ariella Azoulay details the creation and leak of over two thousand classified documents from the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). These documents were leaked by Anat Kam, an Israeli citizen who was carrying out her “compulsory military service” (Azoulay 3). These classified documents detailed the targeted killing of three Palestinians, revealing that the IDF had violated a ruling by the Israeli supreme court. These documents also revealed information regarding other Palestinians the state had executed as well as the plans and instructions for operations in the West Bank. Following the end of her mandatory service, Kam leaked the documents to a journalist who published the findings, which then resulted in her arrest. This is an instance in which the state’s utilisation of the archive and the process of archiving was used to document violence but was also a violent act in itself. By keeping this material in an archive, the intention was for it to be taken out of circulation but also through the mechanisms of the archive, allowing the killings to remain documented and preserved but inaccessible and hidden from public view. Azoulay has dubbed this collection of documents the “Israeli Archive of Executions.” Her article analyses the ways the bureaucracy of the archive creates a physical and conceptual distance between the visitor to the archive and the information held within. She says,

“If we follow the footsteps of those entering the archive, we shall discover that the way to file any document in it, let alone search for a document, is lined with a rich constellation of accessories and mechanisms that in themselves already serve as sentries.” (Azoulay 2)

This constellation of obstacles inherent in navigating the archive ensures that without some prior knowledge of what is within, there are certain things which will remain secret and inaccessible. The process of archivisation can therefore be used as a political tool; it allows for information to be documented and recorded but buried within the archive and relegated to the past. Stoler writes that “colonial archives were both sites of the imaginary and institutions that fashioned histories as they concealed, revealed, and reproduced the power of the state” (Stoler 2002, 97). The archive acts as the metaphorical and literal manifestation of the state’s political interests and in the case of the Israeli Archive of Executions, the archive was used to hide violations of court rulings but also war crimes committed by IDF officials.

Although the presence and existence of these documents have been made known, their content has largely remained out of reach. The function of the archive, being to preserve and protect information, was used for violent means.The same mechanisms that allow for violence to occur and be hidden however is also what protects documents and information from destruction.

Mariam Ghani’s project “What We Left Unfinished” is a long-term, multimedia research project that aims to reconstruct political narratives and aspirations that were unfinished and abandoned by using five unfinished Afghan feature films which were filmed between 1978 and 1992 but never edited. These unfinished films reveal the important issues and tensions that existed during various political situations. Ghani explains that through a reconstruction of these unfinished films, “we can reconstruct not the truths, precisely, of how the state existed and acted in those moments, but rather its most important fictions: its desires and fears, ambitions and ghosts. In the imaginary presented by most finished films of the period, we see the ideal People’s Democratic Republic that could have been, but wasn’t; in the unfinished films, the reality – a utopian project secured by violent force – lingers like a shadow, just barely concealed behind allegories and codes.” (

Ghani uses fictional films to investigate the political climate during different eras and regimes because it is through this medium that ideals and utopian imaginations of the future and of politics were able to be expressed and explored. It is also for this reason that the archive was a target for destruction by political forces. Despite merely being a projection of an ideal, the archive was a threat to state power.

In order to protect these films from destruction, a collection of negatives was hidden behind a brick wall between the years 1996 and 2002 (Ghani 48). The wall was was covered by a poster of Mullah Omar (former leader of Afghanistan) which successfully prevented its destruction. The physical hiding of this material was in order to prevent its destruction during a time of political turmoil under the Taliban regime. Here, Azoulay’s conceptual understanding of the archive as one which is able to hide material is literal and physical. “In some ways, the whole archive was temporarily filed in the invisible dusty drawer, and only very gradually did it emerge from this position of retreat over the subsequent decade (2002-12)” (Ghani 45). Many of the films that were not hidden were burned and destroyed. It is therefore interesting to see how the physical conditions and violence towards the tangible materials have caused a conceptual and ideological shift in the archive; what was hidden for years, is now understood to be the heart or the central element of these archives. The identity and holdings of the archive were directly influenced by the political climate. Returning to the quote from Stoler about how archives are both the sites of the imaginary and the institutions which determined and shaped history, the Afghan Films Archive was a target for destruction as it held films which depicted and represented alternative political futures and forms of governance.

Both of these examples are of archives containing “contested knowledge,” the materials held in these archives were seen to be of high value and significance as they contain material which were products and reflections of the state and if made public, would be a threat to its power (Stoler 87). The classified IDF documents and the Afghan Films Archive were targets of violence because of their potential to cause political and social disruption. These archives utilised the system and process of archiving to either engage in, or protect from violence, revealing the highly charged nature of their holdings.



Azoulay, Ariella. Archive. Issue 1.

Corallo, Regina. “The Human Dimension of Archives.” SCOPE. November 29, 2015. Accessed November 06, 2018.

Ghani, Mariam. “What We Left Unfinished’: The Artist and the Archive,” Dissonant Archives: Contemporary Visual Culture and Contested Narratives in the Middle East, ed. Anthony Downey, l.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, New York: 2015.

“Mariam Ghani Screens Films from the Afghan Film Archive as Well as Her Own Unfinished Film.” Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC). January 11, 2017. Accessed November 06, 2018.

Silverstein, Richard. “Kamm Agrees to Plea Bargain, Israel’s Assange Gets Nine-Year Sentence.” Eurasia Review. February 07, 2011. Accessed November 06, 2018.’s-assange-gets-nine-year-sentence/.

Stoler, Ann Laura. “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance,” Archival Science, 2:1-2 (2002): 87-109.

Vered, Luvitch. “Kam: History Forgives Those Who Expose War Crimes.” Ynetnews. December 4, 2010. Accessed November 06, 2018.,7340,L-3874912,00.html.

“What We Left Unfinished (in Progress).” February 08, 2018. Accessed November 06, 2018.

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