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Afghan Star: A Film by Havana Marking
by Karen Pecota

The Sundance Film Festival provides a number of opportunities for filmmakers and the press to intermingle: to exchange pertinent information and contacts. The Sundance organization takes pride in caring for its people and in providing first-rate venues so that connections will materialize. Filmmakers who have been fortunate to be chosen to showcase their projects at Sundance are encouraged to talk up their film especially to the press. In reality, filmmakers want their stories to be publicized and those holding press credentials want an interesting angle worthy of their coverage.

I was mingling at one of the press and industry receptions, and an energetic young woman approached me. She reached out her hand to shake mine and said, “Hello, I am Havana Marking, a new Filmmaker. I am looking for a person with a green badge.” I smiled, looked down at my press badge and gleefully responded, “Hey! I have a green badge!” Havana shared her passion as a first-time filmmaker and the story that brought her acclaim.

HM: “It’s my first feature documentary, shot on location, in Afghanistan. I went to the country while a TV station, TOLO was producing a music talent search program based on the U.S. show, American Idol. It has its differences but holds to the same concept. It’s called Afghan Star. It is currently one of the most successful TV programs in Afghanistan. The rise to power of the Taliban and its rule (1997 -2001) created a culture empowered by “don’ts”. The western culture, music, or television was banned including singing or listening to pop music. And, women had very little chance for independence. Those in disobedience were imprisoned. This was pretty radical stuff! Today, Afghanistan is technically rid of those restraints with the Taliban no longer in power, but there are generations that have grown up under those shackles and people are still very scared. In support of Afghan Star, people are risking their lives to produce the program and to participate in the series. We filmed from the regional auditions straight away to the finale. We were backstage observers with a camera. We picked four contestants (two men and two women) and followed their experience. The contest contenders and the TOLO station producers personified issues the Afghanistan’s face today.

KP: How big was your team?
HM: Very small! It was essentially me, my cameraman, an Afghan translator and a driver. Traveling in a small group allowed us more flexibility and we could avoid attention to ourselves. The draw back is that the film is a little rough around the edges. The electricity in the country is on about three hours a day which limited our filming time. And while filming, for safety reasons, we couldn’t tell anyone where we were going because of kidnap threats. We had to just show up at places and film. We didn’t plan anything. We only were able to quickly pick up and go to where we heard the action was happening. We were on an exhilarating adventure! In my opinion, even though there are elements to our filmmaking that are a bit rough, the energy and the spirit of the people shine through the rough footage. I believe we get to see the heart of a war torn country and the struggles of its young people. The message is quite clear and that is what matters.

KP: How receptive were you as a female filmmaker?
HM: Oh! I had an amazing time! I am not an Afghan so people accepted me as a kind of freak. They were curious to what we were doing but accepted me. They saw that I was sincerely interested in their culture and their fascinating musical and artistic traditional expressions. The people are incredibly proud of their culture: their singing, poetry and their music and proud that I wanted to document their culture. I was treated incredibly well!

KP: Were the Afghan youth excited to tell their story?
HM: Yep!
KP: Did you feel they trusted you to tell their story?
HM: I have traveled, lived and worked extensively in Islamic countries. I understand the etiquette. There are simple mistakes people make that can be culturally offensive. Luckily, I am beyond that and can pay respect to the right people in the right way, including to dress right and behave properly. I knew how to maneuver in their culture. It was an easy slip in for me and I honestly believe that they were proud to have me tell their story.

KP: How long did it take to make the film?
HM: Three months filming, four months editing and however long it took for publicizing the film. The beautiful thing was that the timing was out of our control; the competition of Afghan Star began and ended on the stage which kept us focused on a particular venue. We were in and out fast, which was great! Plus, we didn’t have any money. We couldn’t spend a lot of time on the project (filming, price of film, the cost of the travel, etc.). We did not have the luxury of a big expense account. This was in our favor because I didn’t pick too many things apart while editing. I wanted to keep the fresh feeling of the story. I believe that if we would have had a longer time frame or more money, we might have lost the true spirit by trying to make it perfect.

I had mentioned to Havana that her film was on my list to see the very next day. I was grateful to have had the chance to listen to the heartbeat of a new filmmaker tell the true-to-life story of Afghan Star and how Havana brought it to life thru the eyes of a camera lens and her own personal risk.

Not only was she chosen to showcase her documentary at Sundance but is also featured at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival March 2009.