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“The debate it starts is incredible”: “Afghan Star” Director Havana Marking

"The debate it starts is incredible": "Afghan Star" Director Havana Marking

After 30 years of war and Taliban rule, “Pop Idol” has come to Afghanistan. Millions are watching the TV series “Afghan Star” and voting for their favorite singers by mobile phone. For many this is their first encounter with democracy. Havana Marking’s “Afghan Star” follows the dramatic stories of four contestants as they risk all to become the nation’s favorite singer. But will they attain the freedom they hope for in this vulnerable and traditional nation? [Synopsis courtesy of film’s official website]

“Afghan Star” will be released this Friday, Jun 26. indieWIRE contacted Marking, via email, to discuss the film.

What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?

I was very lucky to have a documentary making mother – she was one of the first female TV directors in the UK. I made my first film at the age of 7 (a sweet thing about a beach ball that gets lost and is trying to find it’s way home). I soaked a lot in by osmosis but it wasn’t til much later that I thought I wanted to make docs too.

I actually did a masters in Creative Writing which I now realize has contributed to my filmmaking completely. The narrative structure of a good story is the same whether it’s a novel, a print article, a fiction film or a documentary.

Are there other aspects of filmmaking (either on the creative side or industry side etc.) that you would still like to explore?

My first short films were animated and I loved that. I explained the Theory of Relativity in 4 three minute films using Barbie dolls, archive film and stop frame illustration. Making science joyful is something I’d like to do more of.

Please discuss how the idea for “Afghan Star” came about.

“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 back drop of warfare and Taliban repression (they banned music and used to impale TVs on spikes) you certainly wouldn’t expect to find a music TV talent contest. But “Afghan Star – The Series” is now one of the most potent forces of change the country has.

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.

I had always wanted to go to/explore Afghanistan – all my life. 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. Luckily none of them were commissioned, but in the process I talked to a British war journalist, Rachel Reid (now the brilliant Human Rights Watch officer there). She in fact told me about the new TV series “Afghan Star” 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 and way in to such a complex and extraordinary place.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.

Being in Afghanistan for four months affected my filmmaking greatly. Not only was the way we operated completely different, but I couldn’t plan anything in advance due to the threat of kidnapping. 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 I realized quickly that this was a liberation. We went with the action, nothing was planned and if things weren’t ready we just drank tea until the right moment came.

Most crucially, seeing how important a music TV show was to the people of Afghanistan – 11 out of 30 million Afghans watched the finale, 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.

It made me determined all the more that this film should be seen however and wherever it can. We have a theatrical release in the US, but we are also having outreach screenings in the UK in schools with high Islamic populations – the debate it starts is incredible.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?

I knew the idea was brilliant and would be commissioned, but It was my first big film (I had only directed a 30 min film before – “The Crippendales”) and so I was the hurdle. I have had a similar situation before, when I had an idea commissioned and then they insisted someone more experienced direct. I was determined that wouldn’t happen: I have a background working and living in both Asia and Islamic countries so I knew that I was the best person to direct this film.

I chose to go first to the C4 Britdoc foundation, which gives development funding for feature docs and nurtures new talent. Mad visionaries that they are, they gave me £15k immediately. It’s not a lot, but along with their support and contacts it made all the difference.

I went on my own and filmed for a month. I came back knowing it would work logistically, and with a taster tape of engaging characters. We then went to More4 True Stories; Sandra Whipham commissioned it instantly.

In terms of distribution everything has been a dream. Once we got into Sundance the film gained a momentum that has just kept rolling.

How did the casting for the film come together?

It was a mixture of choosing good characters with interesting back stories, observing what was going on in the show’s process AND making sure that each character brought something different to the story. A few very interesting contestants that I focused on at the start were evicted from the show early on and so I couldn’t use them. Setara became the main character when she danced on stage: here the film completely changes, and as she realizes the implications of her actions the reality of modern-day Afghanistan is revealed to the film’s audience.

Luckily people who want to be on a TV show also were happy to be in my film. The amazing access we got however was to their families. It is very rare to film inside an Afghan home with all the women. Setara’s family were so proud of her despite the danger that they let us in and allowed us to film incredibly intimate moments.

Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?

Docs: of course Pennebaker, Maysles Brothers, Kim Longiotto. Others: PJ Harvey, David Lynch, Toni Morrison, Thomas Hardy.

What is your next project?

We have a second Afghan film in the planning, based around a wonderful family getting by in Kabul. It’s not a feature, but a new way to do TV current affairs. Plus some others that are too early to say…

What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?

I can only speak from a UK doc perspective. We have many “indies” (small companies outside of the BBC/ITV structure) making factual content for the channels and beyond, but over the last five to ten years, big corporate money has come in to buy some, put them together and become “Super-indies.” It’s a nightmare; I have seen great companies degenerate into format-driven money machines who treat filmmakers badly, the audience with no respect, and care only about shareholders.

It’s interesting actually as I think it’s one of the reasons why many more British doc filmmakers are looking to make films for the international festival circuit – there seem to be a flood of us! Many people are disillusioned with the systems back home.

What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?

I suppose the main thing is to be certain that your film deserves this time. Anything longer than an hour is a big commitment for your audience and you have to know that you have the story for them. There is nothing wrong with shorts or TV hour films – each film tale needs to fit its own time slot. You can’t force something. I was very lucky to come to this story but it does not mean I will forever direct features. If I find a character or situation that wants to be filmed but it will only fill 30 minutes, I’ll do that. Many many docs are far too long.

Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.

Right now I’m still reeling from Sundance. But every film has been something special and has made me proud at the time.

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