After three decades of Taliban rule, modernity is trickling into Afghanistan–and Afghan Star, Central Asia’s version of American Idol, is at the cultural center of it. The TV show not only invites any age, race, or gender to audition, but also gives citizens a taste of democracy by allowing them to vote for their favorite contestants via cell phone. British filmmaker Havana Marking followed the final four competitors–two men and two women–through the difficulties (and death threats) they encountered while vying for the title crown. The result is the feature-length documentary Afghan Star, a film that illustrates how after years of oppression, a nationally televised singing contest means more than just entertainment to this country–it represents freedom, tangible change, and hope for unity.
We spoke with Marking over e-mail about Afghan Star, the logistics of filming in a war zone, and modernity in Afghanistan.
How did you get involved with this project?
All my life I had wanted to go to Afghanistan. My father had been there in the 60s and the images from that era were just epic. I tried to pitch lots of ideas just to get there. In the process I talked to a British war journalist, and she told me about the new TV series and put me in touch with the local channel owners. I knew instantly that it was a genius idea. I have always loved Pop Idol–(I always cry!) and knew it would be the perfect vehicle into such a complex and extraordinary place.
Was it difficult filming in Afghanistan?
For a foreign journalist doing something “uncontroversial” it was easy to get permission. Actually in terms of getting permits, it was a hell of a lot easier than in the U.S.!
The logistics of filming in a war zone with no guaranteed electricity, flights, etc., made it difficult. Plus, you could only film in safe areas. We didn’t go to Kandahar, for example, where one of my characters was from because it was dangerous for us, but even more importantly, it was dangerous for her to be seen with Westerners. We gave her a handycam, and she was able to film some stuff for us.
Afghanistan is very volatile and problems can flare up in odd areas at any time. There was a warlord who suddenly freaked out in the northwest and so we had to cancel a shoot as his local militia was on the rampage there. He wasn’t Taliban, in fact he was part of the government, so you never knew what was about to happen. Luckily, because we were working with Tolo TV, we had access to all information from their news teams.
Day-to-day it affected us because we couldn’t really plan anything in advance due to kidnapping threats. We just had to turn up and drink lots of tea and hope the person would agree to filming.
From the Afghans you talked to, did you find that the vast majority desired modernity? Or was there a divide between young and old?
The last four generations have grown up in completely different circumstances and under completely different governments. The oldest generation grew up under a liberal king. The next under Communists, the next in a murderous civil war, and the next under the Taliban. Each regime has had a different effect on their psyche, which makes them want different things.
The reason why this is such a fascinating time–with Afghan Star becoming a fault line for this–is that all these different generations and people are trying to work out what they want and who they are. Everyone is pushing and pulling–keeping their tribal respect but trying to figure out how to be modern and be a good Muslim.
What do you want viewers in the West to get from this film?
To humanize and understand the complexities of Afghanistan. It’s not just a war zone.
Afghan Star is playing at Cinema Village.