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.
How did you get the idea for the film and did you have any trouble gaining access to filming everyone involved?
I had always wanted to go to / explore Afghanistan - all my life. I had a great friend who went to work for an NGO there after the fall of the Taliban and she kept telling me how amazing the country was. To research 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.
In terms of casting, 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 was so proud of her despite the danger that they let us in and allowed us to film incredibly intimate moments.
The show's producer seems to have an agenda beyond finding pop stars - to use the show to advance social and political change. Do you think the show can help "move
people from the gun to music"?
Obviously a show cannot be directly responsible for such a big change, but it can give people a vision of something different. It can show people that there is a world where different ethnicities or genders are equal. It is 'only' a TV show but it really gives people hope, and allows people to dream of things that otherwise seemed impossible.
Perhaps more stunning than the atmosphere of repression for women (as seen in the death threats against both Setara and Lema), is the fact that the culture was much
more free in the 1980s. Did you get a sense of how much people remember those freedoms, and how hopeful or eager they are for their return?
Every young person I spoke to talked about the past with very rosy spectacles. They have not witnessed it, but there was a time when there was peace in their country. Everyone - young and old - wants peace and development - no question. But it's complicated because the last four generations have grown up in completely different
circumstances and under completely different governments. The oldest generation grew up under a liberal king. The next under the Communists, the next in a murderous civil war and the next under the Taliban. Each one has a different effect on the psyche and each Afghan has a different want.
The reason this is such a fascinating time, and 'Afghan Star' the show became a faultline for this, is that all these different generations and people are trying to work out what and who they are. Everyone is pushing and pulling and working out how to be a good Afghan and keep their tribal respect, or how to be modern and a good Muslim. It will settle down but in the meantime everyone is working out what they want.
Do you think it's possible for a woman to win Afghan Star when it gets to the popular vote stage of the competition?
I think it is practically impossible right now for a woman to win... but then everyone said it was impossible for a women to get to the top three. Things have to change a great deal for that to happen. The one thing that you learn from Afghan history is that change cannot be forced or go too fast. Social shifts have to happen naturally and from within, or there will be backlashes. It's amazing right now that women can take part at all. Let's be happy with that.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in filming, and/or biggest surprise to you in the course of making the film?
You could only film in safe areas - we didn't go to Kandahar for example where one of my characters was from, because it was dangerous for us, but even more importantly it was dangerous for her to be seen with westerners there. We gave her a handycam and she was able to film some stuff for us.
Afghanistan is very volatile and problems can flare up in odd areas at any time. There was a warlord who suddenly freaked out in the Northwest and so we had to cancel a shoot as his local militia were on the rampage there. He wasn't Taliban, in fact he was part of the government so you never knew what was about to happen. Luckily because we were working with Tolo TV, the local TV station that made 'Afghan Star,' we had access to all information from their news teams.
Day to day it affected us because we couldn't really plan anything in advance due to kidnap threats. We just had to turn up and drink lots of tea and hope the person would
agree to filming.