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Vote Afghanistan!

Havana Marking and Martin Herring's new documentary looks at the Afghan voting system, and compares it to the British election campaign in this chat with Dazed

In August 2009, Afghanistan went to the polls to choose a president for only the second time in its history. While incumbent Hamid Karzai would eventually be awarded another term amid widespread allegations of fraud, the opponents who risked their lives to run against him captured a thirst for change amongst many Afghan voters. A year earlier, Havana Marking had directed the remarkable and award-winning documentary ‘Afghan Star’, which had focused on hopefuls competing in Afghanistan’s equivalent to Pop Idol. Three weeks before election day she returned to the country with co-director Martin Herring to go on the campaign trail with the candidates auditioning for the job of President of Afghanistan. With screenings of ‘Vote Afghanistan!’ now starting at the ICA, Dazed Digital met the two directors to discuss democracy in a warzone and compare electioneering in Kabul with the race to Downing Street.

Dazed Digital: In Afghan Star, you showed how Afghanistan had a history of pop music before the Taliban took power. Was there a similar history of political engagement that the elections were able to tap into?
Havana Marking: They haven’t had democracy before but they are expert politicians. People are used to being engaged. Yes, democracy has been sort of placed there with American backing but the idea that people before just did anything that their leaders said – that’s not true at all. People campaign and allegiances change in the way that they do when you’re voting every five years. Politics is at the heart of Afghanistan.
Martin Herring: Most of the Western press pack that we followed around had agendas that were completely Eurocentric or American. We were free to actually watch the Afghans at work and it was really interesting to see how startling engaged they were. They don’t need any lessons about how to be political people. That was one of the things that was a real revelation and that you just didn’t see in any news reports here.
Havana Marking: It’s a shame that most people will remember the corruption of the election, although rightly so. Karzai’s government is corrupt. But it mustn’t be forgotten that there’s a whole people that weren’t corrupt and were desperate for it to be free and fair.

DD: Are there parallels between what you saw in Afghanistan and the current general election campaign here in Britain?
Martin Herring: However much fraud and finger-ink-bleaching was going on on election day and afterwards, at least a million people voted for Karzai, which is more than voted for the Prime Minister here. There are different lessons. They don’t have their own Goldman Sachs yet, but in ten years time they’ll be able to be fucked by their own bankers. Afghanistan is a combination of complete sophistication and medieval tribal politics.
Havana Marking: There are definitely parallels, particularly the difference that the TV debate has made. Our film focuses on the TV debates in Kabul, the first time they’d had them. The first one, Karzai doesn’t appear, but Basherdost, who’s a complete outsider, is the only person speaking the truth and trying to kick out the Westerners for their corruption, as well as other corruption. He suddenly has a chance after the debate because people see him and think he’s talking the truth, similar to what has happened with Clegg.
Martin Herring: Karzai didn’t appear at all at the first one so he was a little bit rattled. In the meantime he gave his own press conference. Walking round that room he had assembled all the heavy geezers in the country and let the press take photographs of them. It didn’t actually matter what he said at all. He just said “This is it. We’re the people that run the country.” It was a show of real strength, the like of which politicians in Britain are struggling to find because they can’t rely on the bankers and the unions.

DD: Does ‘Vote Afghanistan!’ have a political message?
Martin Herring: It shows the point of view of their politics. We just followed and did what they did. There aren’t any answers in the film, which I think is a fair reflection ultimately. Elections are the same the world over, whether you do it by dipping your finger, a clay pot or a very expensive piece of paper.
Havana Marking: It’s inspiring to see that there are people who are genuinely risking their lives to vote. The Taliban were threatening them and it was dangerous. Really there was a very high turnout when you consider that it’s a warzone. The press were saying it’s a much lower turnout than before, but the war’s bigger than before. The question is: Can you have a democracy in a warzone? If you can’t secure an area how can you make sure there’s no fraud?
Martin Herring: When the President’s brother goes, “We’ll stop the war for a couple of days in the south to get the Pashtun vote out”, you realise there are some hugely powerful parties in the country that can do that. It’s not us. We can’t stop the war. This is their place and their solutions will ultimately have to determine what happens.

‘Vote Afghanistan’ is screening at the ICA from Friday, April 23 – Thursday, May 6