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Originally published Wednesday, August 19, 2009 at 12:14 AM

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Havana Marking on her documentary, 'Afghan Star'

Director Havana Marking talks about her new film, "Afghan Star," a documentary about contestants in an "American Idol"-like, Afghani TV show. The movie opens at Seattle's Varsity Theatre on Friday, Aug. 21.

Special to The Seattle Times

Coming attraction

'Afghan Star'

Opens Friday at the Varsity. For showtimes and a review, pick up a copy of Friday's MovieTimes or go Thursday to


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To direct her first feature-length documentary, "Afghan Star," British filmmaker Havana Marking flew to Kabul, where three massive suicide bombings took place during her first week on location.

"I was absolutely terrified," she said when she brought the movie to the Seattle International Film Festival this spring. It opens for a regular run Friday at the Varsity.

"I couldn't sleep all night, wondering: What am I doing here? You're in a war zone, the kidnap threat is very high, there's no infrastructure. They had three hours of electricity a day, and only in certain homes. Clean water? There's absolutely no guarantee of that either."

But as soon as she met some of the young natives who are the subject of the film, she felt a little braver."I was completely inspired by them," she said. "They've had to live with this for however long?... "

Helping to conquer her fears was a lifetime fascination with the country: "It was always this forbidden gem in the mountains, with this epic scenery and epic people and epic history. And I was looking for a film that would take me there. But nothing seemed good until a journalist told me about 'Afghan Star.' "

The movie is named after an Afghani television show, modeled on Britain's "Pop Idol" (which also spawned "American Idol"), which has become a surprise hit — and a demonstration of how democracy works. Viewers use cellphones to vote for favorite singers.

"I was a fan of the original series on British TV," said Marking, "and I knew that this was just going to be a brilliant way into a culture that is incredibly complicated."

During their years in power, the Taliban suppressed music and dance, so voting for a contestant on an entertainment show even now has become an act of political defiance. Marking chose to follow four contestants, one of them a woman who dares to dance on national TV. It's like a Janet Jackson moment, but rather than merely expressing disapproval of her behavior, critics insist on execution.

"When Setara dances, we had no idea it would become such a political issue," said Marking. "I did realize at the time that what she'd done was extraordinary. Thank God my cameraman was on it, because in that moment I just burst into tears. It is such an extraordinary image of female freedom and female liberation."

The threat of execution, she emphasized, was "very specific" in Setara's hometown. Afghan women have been killed just for appearing on television.

Born in England, Marking spent a year in Seattle when she was a child, while her father taught architecture at the University of Washington. She has vague memories of motorbiking around Lake Union.

After the family returned to England, her mother became one of the first female directors on British television.

Marking began her professional career as a researcher for British TV, then became a producer-director of shorts.

Although "Afghan Star" doesn't soft-pedal the dangers contestants face, it focuses on the joy they feel in being able to express themselves.

"... I always knew that film would be an excellent way into what young people were thinking, how they were behaving, what the situation on the ground was. It's the old guard, the corrupt old guard, that's still in charge.

"And in 10 years' time maybe they won't be. These young people, they are the hope and they are the future. With any luck."

John Hartl:

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