Culture Street

Trudi-Ann Tierney is a Sydney-based writer and producer for television who spent three and a half years as the head of drama for a broadcaster in Afghanistan. Her production company is currently developing a drama serial for Papua New Guinea. Making Soapies in Kabul is Tierney's first book.

Why did you leave behind your role as a television producer and writer in Australia to start a new career in Afghanistan?
I went to Afghanistan because a friend living there told me that the ratio of men to women was nine to one. No seriously, I guess I went there on a whim. I had dinner one night in late 2008 with a friend and ex-colleague, Paul, who announced that he was going to Afghanistan to work for the country’s largest media company, Moby Group. He was going over to help improve production values across the company’s two television channels and to help train its largely unskilled workforce. By the end of dinner I was sold on the notion of traveling to some wild frontier and helping people to tell their stories on TV, and I bid Paul goodbye with a promise that I would join him if the ever needed me. A few months later I was on a plane and jetting to Kabul.

What did you do when you arrived in Afghanistan?
Interestingly enough, my first job in Kabul was actually managing an expat Bar & Restaurant. In our discussions around getting me across to Afghanistan, Paul admitted that he wasn’t exactly in a position to offer me a job in television but, if I could somehow get myself over there, he was certain he could convince management to hire me. So my grand scheme for getting into the country entailed me working at a restaurant owned by friends of his while they went on leave. It was a crazy introduction to Afghanistan. My Afghan staff fought with each other all the time and my expat clientele loved nothing more than to drink and punch each other out. The experience certainly toughened me up.

Tell us about Secrets of This House?
Secrets of This House was a weekly soap opera set around a large, extended Afghan family all living together in the one house. It was the most popular soap opera in the country and our actors enjoyed celebrity status. The topics we tackled were significantly different from the material that we would normally regard here as soap opera fodder. There were no unwanted pregnancies or extra-marital affairs, however the storylines we did cover were certainly drama worthy for an Afghan audience. A young woman standing up to her father and refusing to marry her drug-addicted cousin could have the whole country talking!

What were some of the issues you faced in the media in Afghanistan?
Censorship was a big issue. Every one of the 47 TV channels in Afghanistan had an in-house censor and every programme needed to pass through their filter before it could go to air. I once had a protracted argument with our censor over a scene we’d filmed featuring a husband and wife hugging! The Ministry of Culture had the power to shut down a show or, indeed, even suspend a broadcaster’s licence if it deemed its content ‘un-Islamic”. If we imported a serial from say India or Turkey, our editors had to painstakingly pixilate any visible female flesh from the neck down.
Finding women whose families would allow them to appear on television was a constant source of grief. Many Afghans equate being an actress with being a sex worker and our actresses were often harassed on the streets or threatened by their own families. During auditions we would grill actresses to ensure that they had their families consent but even so, they would routinely pull out the day before filming or simply fail to show up to set. I had to fill in for absent actresses on every show we made. As improbable as that sounds, once I slipped on a Burqa I instantly transformed into an Afghan woman.

Who did you socialise with?
I mainly socialised with other expats living in Kabul. I typically lived in large compounds so most evenings we would sit around eating and drinking and rehashing the days we’d all individually had. There were also a handful of expat bars and restaurants scattered throughout the city – a French bistro, an English bar, an Italian restaurant - and I’d regularly meet up with friends at one of these venues for a night on the town. Beyond that, there really wasn’t much on offer in terms of entertainment. I once went hiking (escorted by gun wielding security guards) in the mountains of Istalif just outside of Kabul but a week after our expedition, a German man was tragically kidnapped and killed in the same area so that was the end of that.

Where do you live now?
I’m living in Sydney but will be traveling this year for a number of new TV projects with my production company, Put It Out There Pictures. We are currently developing a television series for Papua New Guinea with ABC International Development, which is very exciting because there has never been a home-grown drama serial produced in PNG.

Tell us about your book, Making Soapies in Kabul ...
My book documents the 3.5 years I spent living in Afghanistan. It covers my work life - from running the bar to my appointment as Head of Drama for Moby Group - together with the wild and, at times, foolish adventures I embarked upon with my expat posse. It is largely a humorous account of my time there but there are also moments of great sadness and utter despair.
I am hoping to shine a light on a side to Afghanistan that we don’t often see portrayed in the mainstream media. I made so many wonderful Afghan friends; smart, progressive, incredibly funny people who changed my perceptions of Afghanistan and who I remain close to. I trust that my readers will understand and appreciate the close and loving bond that I shared with these people.

MAKING SOAPIES IN KABUL by Trudi-Ann Tierney is published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $29.99, out now.

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