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Havana Marking, Afghan Star

TALENT SHOW CONTESTANT LIMA SAHAR IN DIRECTOR HAVANA MARKING’S AFGHAN STAR. COURTESY ZEITGEIST FILMS.

Following in the footsteps of such filmmakers as James Marsh (Man on Wire), Stephen Walker (Young@Heart) and Parvez Sharma (A Jihad For Love), Havana Marking is the latest director of a British TV-funded documentary to find her film in the theatrical spotlight Stateside. The intrepid director went to school in Dorset, England, before studying Anthropology at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. Subsequently, she began working in documentary television, progressing from researcher through to producer, on shows as disparate as Himalaya with Michael Palin, the Gordon Ramsay studio cooking show The F Word, and the environmental investigation What Would Jesus Drive?. She made her debut as a director in 2005 with The Great Relativity Show, a series of animated shorts explaining the Theory of Relativity which won a Pirelli Science Award. In 2007, she directed a half-hour documentary about disabled strippers, The Crippendales, which was made as part of Channel 4’s New Talent program. Marking currently runs the Redstart Media production company, and has also worked as a freelance journalist for the British newspapers The Guardian and The Observer.

Marking’s feature debut sees her capitalizing on her first-hand knowledge of the documentary genre’s populist offshoot, reality TV. Afghan Star focuses on the TV series of the same name, a talent show along the lines of American Idol which aims to find the newest and best singer in a country where – until the Taliban’s rule ended in 2001 – music, dancing and television were all banned. Marking’s movie follows four hopefuls from the final 10: handsome Rafi, a 19-year-old with real pop star charisma; gifted 20-year-old Hameed, a classically trained Hazara musician; Lima, a 25-year-old woman from ultra-conservative Kandahar who has to practice her music in secret; and rebellious 21-year-old Setara, who sees music as a vital part of her self-expression. Afghan Star, which won Best Director and the Audience Award in the World Documentary section at Sundance this year, is a refreshingly different look at the shifting social and cultural landscape of the Middle East which uses the familiar TV talent show format to underline the differences and similarities between Afghanistan and the West. Marking depicts a much more complex and progressive Afghanistan than we are used to seeing, though the film dramatically and compellingly underlines the genuine dangers the contestants face by so forcefully leaving behind the restrictive religious traditions of the past.

Filmmaker spoke to Marking about the experience of shooting in Afghanistan, her Sundance success, and her memories of watching Bambi and Gandhi as a child.

DIRECTOR HAVANA MARKING DURING THE FILMING OF AFGHAN STAR. COURTESY ZEITGEIST FILMS.

Filmmaker: How did the project originate?

Marking: I really wanted to go to Afghanistan, and I was looking for a film that I could make that would be different. You risk your life out there, so you don’t want to make just another film about an orphanage or something. I don’t want to sound flippant, but you want something different that’s also logistically possible and safe and doesn’t involve some kind of frontline craziness. In that research, I spoke to a brilliant journalist called Rachel Reid, who’s now actually a Human Rights Watch officer out there. She told me about Afghan Star, so we developed the project together and she introduced me to the people who own Tolo TV. It’s one of those things where you sit up immediately and know that this is an extraordinary way in. Just from my own personal experience, you try to read a book about Afghan history and by the third paragraph you’re confused, because it’s just so epic, [laughs] there are just so many chapters in its history, in its ethnic diversity, in its attitude to women, all the different warlords. There’s so many names and it’s very complicated. Not only was this an interesting look at media in general, but it was a clear and easy to understand structure and way into what is otherwise a very complicated society.

Filmmaker: Because we’re so familiar with shows like this, it’s a perfect vehicle to underline the differences between what’s culturally familiar to us and what’s not.

Marking: Exactly, and also the familiarities. That’s what’s lovely about it: you can see so many things that we take for granted here that are really magnified through this format that we all know.

Filmmaker: How familiar with that format of show, because the prototypical show, Pop Idol, comes from the UK?

Marking: When Pop Idol started, I really liked it. That was one of the things that really made me fight for it as a project in terms of getting funding, because I just knew that I was the right person to make it. Now I’m bored of those shows and I think they’ve pushed it to extremes to keep their ratings up, which I don’t like, but at the very beginning I used to cry at Pop Idol every single episode. It is the rawest form of people’s hopes and dreams and this idea that everyone’s got a chance, wherever you are, whatever your background, and people are generally amazing.

Filmmaker: I was looking at your credits and, as you say, the range of documentary formats you’ve worked in seemed like ideal preparation for this.

Marking: In Britain, there’s a very established factual TV industry and I have deliberately worked – as a researcher, as an assistant producer, as a producer – on serious one-hour polemics or documentaries but also on factual entertainment and studio shows as well. So I know what creates the tension, what works, what doesn’t work. But having said how brilliant that training is, I actually made the decision about three years ago that I was no longer going to work on certain shows. The TV industry in Britain has become very corrosive and I made the decision not to work on that kind of popular TV anymore because I was finding it difficult to balance my moral and ethical stances with the way that people were being treated – either people on the show or the audience.

Filmmaker: Was that part of the reason behind your move from producing to directing?

Marking: I did always want to become a director and this was a brilliant way into it, but getting funding for your film as a relative unknown is very difficult. I’ve been in situations before where I’ve had ideas commissioned and funded, and then they say, “Actually, we think someone more experienced should direct it,” which is just heartbreaking. But, at the same time, they’re giving you the money so you sort of go, “Alright…” On this one, I really worked to make sure that it was me that directed it. I’ve also got a background in traveling, working and living in Asia, the developing world and Islamic countries, so I just knew that it was my project.

Filmmaker: What was your comfort level in Afghanistan? How much experience had you had specifically in the Middle East?

Marking: Not the Middle East exactly, but I’ve both lived and worked in Egypt, and also India, which is not Islamic but you’ve also got developing world issues there. I’m absolutely fine about roughing it. I don’t require hairdryers… I suppose that’s not true, I go to salon’s for blow dries. But I’m completely fine being somewhere a bit scary and different, where there’s no central heating, no running water. I’m fine with that – I love it, in fact. I thrive on that.

Filmmaker: You were in Kabul for about four months. Did you feel out of place there as a Western woman?

Marking: Kabul’s so international that people are not called Westerners, they’re more called “internationals” because there’s a community of non-Afghans that includes people from India and Japan and wherever. But as an international there, yes, you’re outside of [the norm]. In the evenings, Afghan families are very interior, they stay inside because it’s very dangerous for them, so there is a separate world – the international world – and then there’s the Afghan world. But it was such an honor to live and work every single day in an Afghan company with Afghans, hanging out in Afghan houses. On those terms, on a day-to-day basis I was completely felt at home there. In terms of the filmmaking, people were so glad and happy that you were talking about something that wasn’t fundamentalist Islam, terrorism, or mad, crazy, bearded people (without meaning to sound tabloid…). It was such a relief to everyone to talk about music and culture and art and freedom and exciting things. People loved that.

Filmmaker: How much did you have to adapt your lifestyle while you were there?

Marking: You have to cover up with a headscarf, and depending on where you are the size of your headscarf changes. There are all these subtle nuances in terms of dressing based on who you’re going to be meeting. I would wear salwar kameez, Indian long shirts and trousers underneath – nothing figure-hugging. “Kabul chic” is actually great, and headscarfs, if they’re done in the right way, can be very glamorous, [laughs] and we all quite enjoyed that. That’s a key thing, but more importantly in Afghanistan they have key and very strong etiquette, respect, and ways of doing things. If you go into someone’s house as a guest, it’s not just how you say hello, who you say hello to first, how you greet people, it’s where you sit, how you sit, who gets the food first. It’s very structured and you have to absolutely be sensitive to those cultural things. If you treat people with that kind of respect in terms of understanding their culture and working that way – and also understanding your role as a woman, because you do subserve to the man of the house – you then get absolute respect back. Working there as a woman, as a director, actually I found that people were very willing to do what I asked and take direction, because I had proved myself to be respectful of Afghan culture.

Filmmaker: It seems like a lot hangs on choosing the right subjects to follow when you’re doing a documentary about competitors, because if the film’s protagonists get knocked out too early then you have no story. How did you deal with this problem?

Marking: The brilliant thing about a talent show is that the reason why someone’s going to be good in my film is the reason they might get to the top three. The main thing I was really keen on doing was finding characters that absolutely highlighted different issues, and I think we were really lucky to do that. The two women in the top ten, we knew we were going to follow them from the word go, and again we were incredibly fortunate that both women we so different and had different reasons and came from different areas and had completely different attitudes. With the two guys, Rafi does have a pop star charisma and he’s interesting because he really shows you the similarities in the world. And we were completely lucky that Hameed did so well. We did follow other people who didn’t make it, but they were left on the editing room floor. We were luckily there for such a long time and with such free rein that we could follow whoever or whatever.

Filmmaker: There’s an amazing moment where Setara dances, which is completely taboo. Were you at all prepared for that to happen?

Marking: I completely had absolutely no idea that was going to happen. We were backstage, and it was an electric moment for everyone. Thank God, my cameraman was on the ball because I burst into tears, actually. There’s that one shot where her headscarf’s off and she’s pointing at the camera and it’s just such a defiant image, such a moment of liberation. She’s not saying “Fuck you” or anything like that, [laughs] she’s just doing it because she just has to express herself. It was so very, very powerful to be there at that moment. It was always going to be a nice film that gave you insight into the youth of Afghanistan was thinking, but that moment – and the effects of that moment – turned it into a political thriller with a fiction drama tension. That was just one of those things that happens. It was an astounding thing.

Filmmaker: You only shot this last year, so you had a very rapid post-production period.

Marking: We finished in March 2008, and then finished editing three months later. It was a quick turnaround, but that’s something I’ve learned on the international documentary circuit is that people seen to take years editing their films. Because I come from a TV background, we had deadlines and you just stick to them. Obviously it’s a huge luxury to have time, but at the same time if you have a deadline, you finish. If it could stretch on and on, we’d never finish. Technically our film may not be perfect, but what it has is an energy and a spontaneity and a heart to it, and I think that comes from a combination of [the speed of editing and] the liberation of filming under those conditions. We just had to follow action: the kidnap threat meant you couldn’t plan anything in advance, you couldn’t tell people to be somewhere at some time, you just had to wait for them, so the conditions enforced cinéma vérité on the film.

Filmmaker: How significant was your success at Sundance, where the film won the directing and audience prizes in the World Documentary section?

Marking: Phenomenal. Just being at Sundance is fantastic; to win two awards is just stunning, and took us completely by surprise. The lovely thing was that we had our Afghan co-producers with us. This was the first film partly produced in Afghanistan that has ever got to Sundance, and it’s an exciting thing. For our Afghan co-producers, and indeed the presenter of the show who was there, it was wonderful for them to see the impact of what they were doing. They’re brave, they’re risking their lives as well, so for them to know that what they’re doing can have this impact is fantastic.

Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?

Marking: Gandhi. It made a huge impact. In fact, it wasn’t the first film I ever saw – that was probably Bambi – but it was first film that had a proper impact on me. I was about seven, and I cried and cried and cried and everyone started thinking they’d taken me to the cinema too young. It had an impact both in terms of the effect that the screen can have on you, but also how important messages of peace and hope are.

Filmmaker: If you had an unlimited budget and could cast whoever you wanted (alive or dead), what film would you make?

Marking: Well, I make documentaries so, hell, I’m going to stick to the same theme: Gandhi. Imagine filming that march, a longitudinal film about him going from a lawyer to the one of the most inspirational figures on earth. It would be incredible.

Filmmaker: Finally, will the current interest in documentaries last, or is it just a fad?

Marking: As long as the documentaries are good enough, it’ll last. There are a lot of boring documentaries out there as well, so I’m hoping that there are going to be pressures now on funds due to the recession and that quality will come to the top.

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