- The Washington Times - Friday, July 17, 2009

The opening scene of “Afghan Star,” a documentary about the making of Afghanistan’s version of Fox-TV’s “American Idol,” shows a blind boy singing with all his heart and saying directly into the camera with a smile, “If there was no music, humans would be sad.”

The shot is heart-wrenching, accompanied as it is by title cards noting how little music was available in that country during 30 years of war, including a total ban on entertainment during the Taliban era that ended with the American invasion in 2001.

British journalist and filmmaker Havana Marking saw the nascent flowering of pop culture — millions have watched “Afghan Star” regularly on a commercial TV station since 2004 — as an opportunity to capture changes in a traditionally conservative society through the eyes of an emerging youth culture. People younger than 20 are in the majority.

The film, which won Best World Cinema Documentary Director and World Cinema Documentary Audience Award at Sundance this year, took Ms. Marking to Afghanistan for four months in 2007-08 to witness the third season of the competition, following contestants up to and beyond the final rounds in a Kabul wedding hall. Doing so meant taking considerable personal as well as financial risks; it was her first feature-length documentary, and the budget was low. The crew spent much of the time filming in improvised television studios in back of an old cinema, surrounded by armed guards and razor wire.

“I was prepared for working in an Islamic country,” Ms. Marking said in a recent telephone interview. “I wasn’t prepared for the war zone — the constant security checks and need for being on guard all the time. The impact from war on the infrastructure of the country is shocking. You can’t believe people are living like that. Just bombed-out ruins.”

Kidnapping is prevalent in Afghanistan, and criminal elements are everywhere because the justice system is nearly nonexistent. In order not to draw attention to themselves — or “intimidate people” — her crew members traveled only in a beaten-up unmarked van. Just Ms. Marking, a driver, a translator and a cameraman who also did the sound.

And “sometimes a gun,” she adds.

Bombs went off the first week she arrived, but, undeterred, she recognized that her real challenge was capturing on film the different aspects of Afghan life as represented by the competition show’s eager contestants and their families. Security for some of the finalists was a major issue, with some even having their lives threatened for breaking social conventions such as daring to dance in public and not wearing a head scarf.

“The technology of today is such that we could be very low-key,” Ms. Marking notes. “We never put up lights and, in a way, it was almost like cinema verite was forced on us. We couldn’t tell anyone in advance where we would be. When we were out on the streets, it meant waiting until the moment was right and following the action.”

Serendipity often came to her aid. She came upon some boys in a battery-charging store — people would sometimes run their televisions off these batteries. Going home with the boys to get their parents’ permission to film them was how she found the blind singer and his younger brother.

Ms. Marking, who plans to go back in August to do a television documentary about the presidential election taking place that month, clearly hasn’t gotten the country out of her system.

“The thing that is really interesting is there are so many different influences in play,” she says. “Not only have the last four generations grown up under different regimes, each having a different imprint, but you have all those refugees coming back from all over the world. Everyone is pushing and pulling; it will take a while for it to settle. And that is what is exciting about the place.”

“Afghan Star” opens Friday in Washington.

Ann Geracimos

East meets West

The Smithsonian Institution’s pair of Asian art galleries — the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery — throw open their doors and welcome film buffs of all stripes for a pair of film series focused on Asian cinema. The Made in Hong Kong Film Festival kicked off last weekend, while the Asia Trash! series gets going July 30.

The Made in Hong Kong festival enters its 14th year, making it the longest-running annual film event at the galleries and something of a yearly event for the area’s cinephiles.

“It definitely brings in a younger audience than we usually have,” says Tom Vick, the film programmer at the galleries. “Hong Kong films have been popular here for quite a long time, and they have a lot of devoted fans. … It’s a more young kind of fun-loving crowd. I think that these are genre films — they’re action movies and martial-arts movies and comedies and things like that.”

Anyone who makes the weekend screenings a priority will find a broad portion of the Hong Kong cinema represented here. First up is this weekend’s entry, “Ashes of Time Redux.” Famously unhappy with the film as it was originally cut on its first release 14 years ago, director Wong Kar Wai re-edited the feature and re-released it last year.

“Ashes of Time Redux” is, like all of Mr. Wong’s work, a real treat for the eyes. However, those unfamiliar with the source material, — the Chinese martial-arts novel “The Eagle-Shooting Heroes” — will find it a hard film to follow, narratively speaking, but just sit back, enjoy the ride, and don’t get too worried if you get lost.

Another highlight Mr. Vick points to is “All About Women,” which he describes as “Sex in the City” set in Hong Kong. The movie revolves around three women — one who invents a man-attracting pheromone, a rocker who enjoys boxing and an attractive woman who has no problem with men but no luck keeping her female friends.

Other entries include “One Nite in Mongkok,” a thriller from director Derek Yee about a hit man looking for his fiancee and the mob boss he has been hired to kill; “Eye in the Sky,” another thriller about the mob and the surveillance cops working to take the group down; and “My Mother Is a Belly Dancer,” about a klatsch of housewives who take up belly-dancing.

Don’t look for movies like “My Mother Is a Belly Dancer” in the other festival, running parallel to the Made in Hong Kong festival through the middle of August. Asia Trash! brings some of the best Asian genre films from the last decade to the big screen.

Starting July 30 with “Versus” and returning the following three Thursdays with “The Host,” “Tears of the Black Tiger” and “Tokyo Gore Police,” the Asia Trash! series promises a rollicking good time for anyone interested in a fun, dirty evening at the theater.

Consider this description of “Versus,” drawn from the Freer and Sackler galleries’ Web site: “Yakuza gangsters, zombies, an escaped convict still shackled to a severed hand: Ryuhei Kitamura’s ‘nonstop action gorefest’ … is a must-see for connoisseurs of good trashy fun.”

“The Host” caused something of a stir on its stateside release in 2007; the creature feature was praised for its emotional depth and ability to deliver scares. When a mutated amphibian wreaks havoc in Korea, a family must pull together in order to rescue a daughter who has been taken to the monster’s lair.

“Tears of the Black Tiger” is a kitschy look at “Thai movies, Hollywood melodramas and, believe it or not, cowboy movies,” according to the galleries’ Web site, while “Tokyo Gore Police” takes the silliness of “Versus” and kicks it up a notch. An instant trash classic and an object of cult obsession in the U.S., this is sure to be the highlight of the series.

Tickets are free on a first-come, first-served basis, but don’t expect to be able to waltz up to the box office five minutes before the curtain goes up: Doors open one hour ahead of time, and Mr. Vick recommends getting there around that time to ensure a seat. For a full schedule, including times and locations, check out the Web site for the galleries: www.asia.si.edu/events/films.asp.

Sonny Bunch

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