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“AFGHAN STAR” director, Havana Marking

[PREMIERE SCREENING: Friday, Jan. 16, 6:15 pm — Holiday Village Cinema IV, Park City]

Afghan Star is a documentary about a TV show of the same name. It’s a powerful TV format we all know — a version of Pop Idol — but in a country that most of us don’t: Afghanistan. With the backdrop of warfare and Taliban repression (they banned music and used to impale TVs on spikes) you certainly wouldn’t expect to find a TV music talent contest. But Afghan Star: The Series is now one of the most potent forces of change the country has. You can imagine then, with that history, that there are a very different set of forces affecting film and media in Afghanistan.

The narrative structure of my documentary, following the contestants and producers from the regional auditions to the finals in Kabul, was clear from the start, but events unfolded to make it a modern-day thriller. When one woman danced on stage all hell broke loose: both her life and the future of the show was threatened. Their futures in turn came to symbolize that of the fragile nation itself.

Being in Afghanistan for four months affected my filmmaking greatly. Not only was the way we operated completely different (I couldn’t plan anything in advance due to kidnap threat, I couldn’t go anywhere my bodyguard didn’t allow, I couldn’t print anything so no call sheets, and with erratic electricity lighting was darn tricky) but seeing how important a TV music show was to the people of Afghanistan — 11 out of 30 million Afghans watched the final episode while producers and contestants literally risked their lives —made me understand the power of media in an amazing new way. These were forces that we in the West have all but forgotten.

In the UK there have been numerous scandals about documentary, reality and competition TV. Votes have been rigged, “real” people have been actors, and docs have been manipulated completely for high drama. In a film about Annie Leibovitz, footage of the Queen walking into a photo shoot was recut to make it look like she was storming out (“Queengate”). When filmmakers are arrogant enough to mess with the Queen, you know there is a problem.

Everything is raw in Afghanistan. We witnessed the effects of the show first hand. When a female contestant let her headscarf slip — to much scandal — within weeks the young girls were taking theirs off deliberately. Gradually the youth were getting more confident and as people voted for their favorite singers by SMS, the first time they have voted for anything, the very concept of democracy was being established. If they had for one moment believed the votes were rigged, the whole attitude to a political system would have been questioned.

The power of those in media, be it reality show producer, documentary filmmaker, fiction writer — whoever — is not to be underestimated, and their ethical responsibility to the audience and to their characters is great. It’s obvious of course, but something that media across the globe seems to forget for the sake of a good story, especially now that there is so much competition. But learning this once again has made my film a much more powerful piece. My characters’ lives were at stake: I couldn’t afford to get it wrong.

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