Paradigm Shift’s Community Outreach Coordinator Julia K. Weis here interviews Havana Marking, director of the awe-inspiring documentary Afghan Star, which explores the impact of Afghanistan’s version of Pop Idol on the varying factions within Afghan culture and the influence of musical self-expression within a society restricted by religious extremism.
Afghan Star had its New York Premiere at the International Human Rights Watch Film Festival, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in New York. The documentary was released by Zeitgeist Films and represented by Shotwell Media.
View the trailer on PShift TV here.
PShift: What prompted you to develop the film Afghan Star? What’s your relationship to the show and/or Afghanistan?
HM: I had always wanted to go / 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.
PShift: Why did you choose to follow these four contestants? Did the gender of the only two female contestants play a role in your decision-making for whom to choose as your lead characters?
HM: It was a mixture of choosing good characters with interesting back stories and observing what was going on in the show’s process. 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. Each person brought a different issue to the film.
Yes of course. There were only two women in the top ten and so I followed both of them. Luckily they were both interesting, but also represented the different ends of female situation. One was liberal, one was conservative.
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.
I wanted to make sure that I had an equal balance of genders in the film which is quite tricky in a country where so few women are in the public eye. But I made up for it by finding periphery characters like the Khan family of fans – they had three daughters.
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.
PShift: What was it about these two women that made them representative of the varying mentalities and lifestyles in Afghanistan?
HM: Lima came from Kandahar – a very traditional region and a Taliban Stronghold. She shared many of those conservative views and was very dismissive of Setara’s more liberal behavior. She was in the show because she was poor and needed the prize money.
Setara was in it because she wanted to sing and loved stardom. They were very different.
PShift: Did you feel that these women were treated differently as contestants/as performers on the show?
HM: No. What they had to fear and go through was very different – they risked a lot more than the men, but on the stage they were equal. That is one reason why the show is so radical in itself.
PShift: To what degree did you feel the situation was dangerous for these women in understanding that they were possibly risking their reputations and lives for coming on the show, for singing and – for Setara – for dancing and showing her hair?
HM: It was very dangerous – there is still a hard line traditional element. For people to accept women singing on stage was a big step, and it shows how far the country has come that the majority of people wanted that to happen. But to dance? No one dances there in public – men or women. Setara was pushing boundaries for both genders. She was very very brave.
PShift: What message do you think Setara’s “rebellion” sends to girls, both Western and Afghan, even knowing that she might have experienced and still could experience fatal consequences?
HM: Setara is one of those people who cannot be repressed and is very inspiring for that reason. For things to change there are have to be people who go ‘too far’ so that others can follow in their tracks.
PShift: What was the perception of female audience members? What spectrum of religiosity was evident there? What was it about the Khan daughters that made them significant fans to watch?
HM: There is no one perception and no one attitude – regardless of gender, religion ethnic group. Setara and Lima show the different ends of the spectrum. And Islam has many different attitudes and ways within it. The fact is that most issues are political first and foremost but often the first to be the victims are defencless young women. But there are many victims in Afghanistan. There are many male journalists who have been killed too for example. Setara’s action was the perfect excuse for people to attack the TV station politically.
I chose the Khan family because they were such an articulate, loving family that broke all the usual stereotypes. Actually there are many families like that – they just don’t ever get represented and certainly don’t have the loudest voices.