British director Havana Marking’s remarkable debut is a feature length documentary following a group of young Afghanis vying to become a pop idol. Afghan Star premiered at IDFA and will have its North American premiere at Sundance. It’s screening on More4′s ‘True Stories’ strand in April, with broadcasters around the world having expressed interest in it. Carol Nahra talks to Marking about working in Afghanistan.
What was the genesis of the film?
All my life Afghanistan has been a country which has fascinated me. And I spent a long time pitching really bad ideas just to get me there. But what’s brilliant about it is you realize the process is so important. I ended up talking to a journalist out there and she was in touch with the TV company who were making Afghan Star (the television program). She suggested it and I jumped at it in a second.
What was the most challenging aspect of filming in Afghanistan?
In terms of day-to-day filming, it’s dangerous. For kidnap reasons you’re not allowed to tell anyone where you’re going to be in advance, so you can never set anything up. So you just have to turn up and hope basically. In a way I think that’s to our advantage, because there is a temptation in documentary to set everything up, so you know what you’re doing but that can lose the freshness and the true observational feel about things.
There’s electricity three hours a day and people are poor so you can’t say ‘can we just plug in our lights?’. So you just have to go with it. Sometimes the bodyguard would just say ‘We have to go now” and you’d have to go whether you were finished or not.
What was it like working as a woman out there?
By the very nature of the subject I was working and filming young people who already had open minds. So that was less of a problem than people would imagine.
There is a slight double standard: People understand that there is a world full of women who do things; it’s just whether Afghan women are allowed to do things.
A man would have been able to make the film; it just would have been a different film. There are various scenes where I go into houses and film with women which is pretty special; it’s not often that you’re allowed to do that and develop proper relationships with the women. But equally with the young men it was harder than I thought to make relationships. There were a couple of moments where I left and asked my cameraman to ask questions as he could get better reactions.
How has the film been received?
The reaction to the film has been overwhelming. It works on every level. That is a combination of luck and good executive producers who would guide me at certain times. Normally Afghanistan is a bit of maze to people. What I’ve been able to do is by using the filter of Afghan Star, this TV format which everyone understands and everyone knows, people can watch it and understand it. And through that there is a real substance and depth that otherwise people find very difficult when trying to learn about Afghanistan.
What is the most surprising thing you learned about Afghanistan in making this film?
How full of optimism it still is. The young people are amazing; they’ve grown up surrounded by trauma. Everyone has a terrible tramautic story, yet still young people believe they can create a new Afghanistan and you just pray for them that they can.