All over the earth, people once danced in public. It's a universal image of joy -- just think of those two barefoot children dancing at the end of the Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. But in Afghanistan, where music was banned for five years by the Taliban and was considered sacrilegious by the Mujahideen, you can risk your life dancing and singing in public.
That's why I found it so incredible that for several years the most popular TV show in Afghanistan has been an American Idol-style series called Afghan Star. Eleven million Afghans have watched this talent competition, most voting via cell phone for their favorite contestant. For many of the show's fans, it was their first encounter with the democratic process. Yesterday I spoke with journalist Havana Marking, who followed the show's third season to produce a documentary of the same name, Afghan Star. This absorbing film -- her first feature documentary -- won the Directing and Audience Awards at Sundance's 2009 World Documentary competition.
Afghan Star received a 10-minute standing ovation at the Sundance Film Festival. Were you surprised by the audience reaction?
Havana Marking: I was in tears. My Afghan co-producers Saad and Jahid Mohseni and the TV show host Daoud Siddiqi were with me at Sundance, and for them to be able to see the audience reaction was a very emotional thing.
What motivated you to film this story?
HM: My father traveled to Afghanistan in the 60s when he was a hippie. Photographs of the landscape and the people were incredible. I've been trying to make a film about Afghanistan for years, but as I looked around for a story to tell, nothing seemed different enough. Then one day journalist Rachel Reid told me about Afghan Star and immediately I thought, "That's it!"
During the filming did you ever feel your life was threatened?
HM: My crew included a bodyguard, because kidnapping is an issue. That's also why we did not use a daily call-sheet. You can't have a strict schedule. This was a different way of working, but it also meant we had the freedom to pack up and follow the action. The film may not be technically perfect, but it has a spontaneity and an energy that springs directly from the conditions under which we were filming.
Everyone in the film sounded so sincere about wanting to revive Afghan culture.
HM: The Taliban exiled or killed musicians, and destroyed musical instruments. Painting, poetry, and writing were banned unless it was religious, or directly praised the Taliban. No culture can survive in that environment. But Afghans have an incredibly rich cultural tradition spanning thousands of years, and they are proud of that heritage and eager to revive it.
Compared to the poor Afghans using old car batteries to power their TVs, the TV show producers had some pretty fancy equipment, including a jib camera for high shots.
HM: The effort it took to get all those lights and that crane, it was unbelievably enterprising. Everything had to come by air from Dubai because there are no secure open roads in Afghanistan. The producers were that confident that people would love this show.
You've said that voting for their favorite singer exposed many Afghans to the democratic process for the first time.
HM: Watching young girls with only one mobile phone in the house debate about who to cast that one vote for -- it was pretty powerful. It wasn't a presidential election, but it was the idea that these girls had a role to play....that they could impact the outcome.
One of the two female finalists, Setara, was criticized for swaying a little on stage while she was singing. An older man said, "She deserves to be killed." What's behind his outrage?
HM: Setara was no Beyonce, but to Afghans she was dancing in public, and some people consider that sacrilegious. In the West we are inclined to say, "Hey, the Taliban's been gone for eight years...lighten up!" But Afghan people have seen regimes come and go for the past 30 years. They know that nothing is definite. If the Taliban returns to power 10 years from now, who will they attack? Quite possibly everyone who has danced in public.
The TV show host said in your film, "The Taliban is not important." Under the circumstances, was that a daring thing to say?
HM: Very few people would have been that outspoken on camera. The host, Daoud Siddiqi, genuinely feels he is a target now, so he is no longer in Afghanistan.
To an American, the $5,000 cash prize awarded to the winner might not sound like much, but what does it mean to an Afghan?
HM: Five thousand dollars is five times the average annual income in Afghanistan, where 50 percent of the population has no income at all. So it's a very big deal. Lema competed for the money, to help her family out of poverty. Money was less of a factor for Setara, who auditioned because she considers herself a singer and doesn't ever want to do anything else.
Will your film be shown in Afghanistan?
HM: No, although it's possible that pirated DVDs will show up there.
What don't Westerners understand about Afghanistan?
HM: Probably that democracy is not a blanket term you can magically zap onto another country. The way democracy works in America may not be the way it works in Afghanistan. Afghans want certain freedoms, but not always the same freedoms that Americans have.
Are you hopeful about Afghanistan?
HM: Yes, I still have hope, and I believe it's an important battle to fight. In Afghanistan, 60 percent of the population is under 21. The mean age is 17. These young people don't want to grow up terrified, uneducated, and oppressed. Having started this thing, the West must find a way to give this generation a chance to grow up in peace.
"Afghan Star" opens in New York City on June 26, and in Los Angeles on July 24. For a complete list of playdates, click here.