Capturing a Revolution: Afghan Star Director Havana Marking

With Afghan Star, London-based filmmaker Havana Marking has crafted something utterly extraordinary -- a fly-on-the-wall glimpse at a shattered culture beginning to "awaken from a dream," as one Afghan puts it. And it's all thanks to the unlikeliest of things: a televised singing competition that has quickly become a runaway national phenomenon. Even the most impoverished of Kabul slum-dwellers somehow find a way to watch Afghan Star, cheering on their favorites with the same ferocity as the most obsessive Adam Lambert fan. Contestants are of both genders and from every province of that civil war-torn country, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, American Idol-style, as host Daoud Sadiqi affects his best Ryan Seacrest and reveals the week's voting results.

It's that radical notion of democracy -- one vote per SIM card -- that poses the greatest threat to an old guard trying and failing to keep its population (half of which is under 21) in the dark ages. If ever there was a movie to bridge the seemingly infinite divide between Middle East and West, this is it. We spoke to Marking, who took the World Cinema Documentary Directing and Audience Awards for Star at the year's Sundance, about her incredible journey.

What compelled you to risk your personal safety to tell the story of Afghan Star?

The country came first, in that I wanted to go to Afghanistan. I wanted to go for years and years and years. It's one of those countries that's been a sort of forbidden jewel, in that it's in this completely inaccessible, mountainous region. Yet the images, the photographs that came from the '60s -- the landscapes, the people look epic, the history is just incredible. The British history of involvement in Afghanistan, as well, is a fascinating thing.

So I wanted to go, but also if you're going to go to a country like that, take those sort of risks, spend that kind of money, you really need to know it's a good film, and logistically possible, and safe as it can be. And so I wasn't finding anything that was interesting enough, or different enough. I mean of course you could follow an orphan, but I mean, there's been a million films like that. So in this process of doing research about Afghanistan, I was talking to a journalist who told me about Afghan Star, and I sort of jumped and said, "That's it! That's brilliant!"

How long had the show been running?

We filmed the third season, which was perfect. Because you can see, those guys are learning on the job. The first season was literally a few contestants standing on a carpet with one bulb. The speed with which those guys are learning and developing is incredible. It's just brilliant.

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I liked when the stage manager shows you the broadcasting textbook he's literally using as a guide, and you realize that's where they are in this process.

I know! It's so sweet. There's no film school, there's no industry. There's nothing. But because it's young Afghans making programs for young Afghans about young Afghans, they've managed to create something that really captures the audience. If it was other people coming in, it wouldn't work. They've done it so well.

What did your family and friends say when you announced you were heading into an Islamic war zone?

My family were frightened, really frightened about it. But at the same time, my mom was a journalist. She was The Guardian Latin-American correspondent for a while. She lived in the mountains with Maoist Guerrillas. So she was in no position to tell me, "I don't think you should do this." So she kept really quiet, and was secretly very frightened, and was very relieved when I came home.

Were you aware during the shoot that there existed this movie Slumdog Millionaire?

No! I hadn't known at all. It was really amazing, because our structure is basically identical. When I saw it, I was amazed, really. I mean it's brilliant.

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It was so much more affecting for me, though, knowing your story was real. From the opening shot of that blind, impoverished Afghan boy, rhapsodizing about music and the happiness it brings him, you just had me. Who is he?

We knew anecdotally that people were getting their batteries charged specifically on a Friday so they could watch the show that night. That was part of the phenomenon, so we were trying to find a battery shop to show this thing. We found one, by chance, in a very poor area of Kabul. And there were these two little guys, who were just amazing. Those little hands. So dignified in that utter poverty -- just incredible. So obviously you want to go back and make sure with their mother that it's all right for them to be on camera, and just get to know what their life is like in case they become bigger characters in the film. So we went back to their house, and the mother wasn't there actually, but there, sitting there, was this little guy listening to music on the radio. And he was so incredible, and so wise and stunning in his take on life, even though they lived in the slums of Kabul and he couldn't really leave there.

I had no idea music was banned by the Taliban. You'd think if there's one thing that unites every culture, regardless of their doctrines, it's music. The notion of banning music really gives you a window into how twisted that regime was.

Yes. And how clever, because it's an unbelievably effective social tool. They were beating kids for singing nursery rhymes. If you can instill fear to that level, you're in control. You have control of a country, if you're that mad, and that brutal. It did have a historic precedent, in that the Mujahideen didn't outright ban music, but in the years before the Taliban, they had decreed that frivolous music about love and fun was disrespectful while they were fighting and dying. So it had a historical beginning with some reasoning, but then it twists into this situation. Compare that to Britain, where all we did was sing in World War II. I talked to my grandmother, who said that to keep your spirits up, part of national pride was that you sang. This is the total opposite.

It sounds like a fairytale, where some dark force takes control of the land and cancels singing.

And then they're woken up from a dream. There's even a line in the film where a guy says, "Our souls were dead, and now we need to wake them up." And they're waking up by singing. It's a lovely thought.

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Are things changing? It seems the genie is now out of the bottle.

Yes, and in fact the Taliban has said that if they were to come back to power, music would no longer be banned. They're savvy to the fact that that was one of the things you could pinpoint most about what everyone hated about them. The thing about the Taliban is that they came on the back of 15 years of total chaos and war. No one was going to win the civil war until everyone was dead, and it needed someone as brutal and mad as the Taliban, in a way, to stop that. They effectively stopped a civil war and brought peace -- they just brought it at incredible costs. It was only after years that people realized, wait -- we've got peace, but what else have we got?

What is the political climate now in Afghanistan?

Difficult to say, really. The security situation has degenerated massively. The Taliban is stronger and stronger. Our policy of war on drugs and our policy on opium has essentially handed them a $300 million-a-year in income in opium trade. People are afraid the Taliban will come back. Obama's surge, we'll have to wait and see. Essentially with the war, we've got to start again. We really messed up. We did achieve something at the beginning and they just let it rot, and the Taliban came back.

The surge, more people are going to die, more money is going to be spent, and it's tragic that that has to happen, but what's great is that Obama is talking on an equal level about development, about creating an infrastructure, and that is going to be what creates a stable country. That country has not had an infractructure for 20 or 30 years, and you cannot expect [democracy to flourish] with 50% unemployment, fifth poorest country in the world, etc. You can't expect it to work until there's food to eat.

It's quite a moment when the show's producer and host Daoud Sadiqi thumbs his nose at the Taliban.

I know. Brave man. And he was one of the few who would openly talk against them. People are terrified that if the Taliban come back, who will be the first they go for? I should tell you that Daoud came to Sundance to help present the screening, and never left. He didn't get back on the plane, and he's now seeking political asylum.

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Wow.

I think that is a real, sad reflection of just how dangerous things have become. He's not a coward in any way -- he was part of the resistance movement. He's openly done something radical and anti-Taliban. And yet now is the time that he feels it's too dangerous to go back.

So is he just kicking it on Main Street?

[Laughs] I don't know. He's somewhere in the States, waiting for his case. Daoud did what he had to do -- he set up the ideals. All tribes are equal, men and women are equal. Someone described it as similar to The Ed Sullivan Show, where black and white musicians were completely equal. It was the first time that everyone had switched on the TV, and there was The Beatles, and there was James Brown, and everyone was equal.

Describe the moment Setara pulled off her headdress and danced on live national television.

Oh my god, it was electric. Absolutely electric. We were watching it on the little monitor with all the other contestants. They were all just like, "Allah -- whoa." Thank God my cameraman was completely on it, and took control of the situation, because I was just stunned. It was that image, when she took her scarf off, and you see her in closeup, and she's smiling and pointing at the camera -- that is just such an inspiring moment of defiance.

It's revolution. It's like the student standing down the tank in Tiananmen Square.

Exactly. Exactly. I burst into tears. I really did. I kind of went to pieces. There was no way I could direct at that moment, so thank god my cameraman was there. <span

class="pullquote right">We stopped filming for a while, and she and I just went into the corner and hugged and cried for ages, because it was just so extraordinary. One of the interesting things about that is that like Setara says, she's grown up with fear. It doesn't mean she's not afraid, she's just used to being afraid. In a way, it's only fuel to her fire, to her defiance. What was scary to Setara was the loneliness and isolation, and not being able to be around her family. Being afraid and being alone is really scary, and so one of the things I was really happy about was that we were at least able to be Setara's friend, and help her not be so lonely at that time.

That had to be the moment when you were afraid most for your own safety too.

In that moment when we go back to Herat, and those guys are on the street saying she should be killed, those guys were really wound up, and there was a real tension in the air, and who knows what could have happened. It's a country when you can't predict anything, and when you have that feeling, you just need to go. That was the only time we decided I should go. I was adding, as a woman, to the tension. So I went and sat somewhere safe and my cameraman and translator conducted those interviews without me.

Are you launching an Oscar campaign?

I don't even know what that is!

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Like that competition, some contestants in Afghan Star are accused of buying votes via wealthier fans snatching up SIM cards.

True, and it actually causes quite a stir. People are now aware of what fairness is, what democracy feels like. A young girl feels like she genuinely has an input, that an outcome will result directly from something in which she has voted. To have a situation where young people, and all ethnic groups have a vote that is equal to that of an old person -- it's a tribal elder society where the elders always have a greater say, certain tribes are more important that other tribes, men are obviously more important than women. This turns all that on its head. 60% of the population is under 21. The median age is 17.

It's very interesting to see what's happening in Iran at the moment. Iran is much further ahead than Afghanistan, but they too have a very young population, and they're the ones in the streets. They're the ones out there, demonstrating for change. ♦



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