It was April 2009 when Trudi-Ann Tierney jumped on a plane, leaving behind her role as a television producer and writer in Australia, to start a new career in Afghanistan.
Starting work as the manager of a bar in Kabul, – where a simple alcohol run could land her in jail – Trudi-Ann enjoyed life in -Ka-bubble', an expat community made up of the burnt-out army types now working as security contractors, the media, the -Do Gooder' humanitarians and the diplomats. But the reckless encounters with each other, with alcohol and with recreational drugs, would often prove to be as dangerous as the city's streets.
Before long Trudi-Ann finds work as a writer and producer for Moby Media Group, Afghanistan's biggest TV broadcaster, established soon after the fall of the Taliban following almost a decade of television being banned in the country.
There she battles with the in-house censor (unable to show films where skin is exposed - yet violence is no problem during breakfast TV), breaks up tribal fights in the writers' room, and panics over actresses quitting because their uncle's don't want them to be on TV (one female contestant on a singing show receiving death-threats for letting her head scarf slip on air). With a largely inexperienced but enthusiastic team, Trudi helps create the country's most popular soap opera -Secrets of This House'.
But all's not hilarity and mishap. Trudi also encounters several terrifying suicide attacks, including a Taliban assault on the US embassy that unfolds at the end of her street. At the numerous guesthouses where she lives during her time in Kabul she habitually devises escape strategies in case of insurgent strikes. Filming out in public and as a "stand-out fair-skinned blonde and an obvious target" Trudi is lectured by her security contractor mates on the importance of personal protective equipment, kidnapping prevention techniques and possessing a "proof of life" question (security strategies that aren't implemented by her own company).
This is Trudi's fascinatingly open, often funny and poignant account of how a talented Australian TV executive found herself working in a war zone.
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. This is her first book.
Making TV Soaps In Kabul
Allen and Unwin
Author: Trudi-Ann Tierney
Question: What originally inspired you to move from Australia to Afghanistan?
Trudi-Ann Tierney: In late 2008, my television career in Australia had come to a bit of a standstill. My business partner Muffy Potter and I had a few television shows optioned by some big production houses, and there were broadcasters claiming interest in our various projects…but essentially we were playing the waiting game.
At around this time, an Australian friend and ex-colleague was appointed as head of production at Moby Group, Afghanistan's largest and most successful media company, and needed some assistance in training up the local staff in writing and producing television drama. His job offer was simply too intriguing to refuse.
My original intention was to spend 3 months in Afghanistan. After 9 months Muffy came across to work with our team, and I ultimately ended up staying 3.5 years – the work and the wonderful friends I made there proved addictive!
Question: Why was it important for you to write Making TV Soaps In Kabul?
Trudi-Ann Tierney: I felt a real need to present a side to Afghanistan that most Australians simply have no idea about. Our concept of the country is shaped by news reports of suicide bombers, women in blue Burqas, and turban wearing, religious fundamentalists sporting long beards. But what I discovered there honestly astounded me.
I worked alongside progressive, intelligent women and men who were truly invested in the future of their country; they are committed to ensuring that the social and political gains that have been made over the past thirteen years are not eroded away or lost altogether.
Television is an important tool for fostering positive change in Afghanistan, particularly in light of the fact that around 85 per cent of the population is illiterate. So a simple soap opera could be used to promote issues such as women's rights, the importance of education and good health.
My team became very adept at making highly entertaining television that also contained constructive messaging. And I guess I really wanted to celebrate and pay tribute to these brave and talented young people.
Question: What was the most difficult part of you role as a writer and producer for Moby Media Group?
Trudi-Ann Tierney: My biggest challenge was finding women willing to appear on television. In the eyes of many Afghans, being an actress is akin to being a sex-worker, and our actresses were often harassed in the streets or threatened by family members.
During auditions, we would elicit assurances from our actresses that their parents and brothers were happy for them to appear on TV…only to have them pull out after three episodes because some distant cousin on the other side of the country had raised some objection to it. Quite often, actresses would just fail to turn up on the day of filming and I routinely stepped in (either wearing a Burqa or with my face turned away from camera) to fill the gaps.
Question: What was the best part of your time in Kabu?
Trudi-Ann Tierney: The expat community in Kabul is very tight knit. Everyone was a little crazy, and we went through some incredibly surreal experiences together. And I have walked away from my time there with life-long friendships.
But to be honest, it was the hospitality, warmth and great humour of my Afghan work friends that truly buoyed me. We laughed every day, about everything. Making soapies in a war zone is inherently difficult on so many levels, but our ability to chuckle our way through it all kept us sane and functioning.
Question: Can you tell us about your Production Company and upcoming drama series for Papua New Guinea?
Trudi-Ann Tierney: We started up our production company -Put It Out There Pictures' back in 2008. As I said, we had a few promising shows in the works that ultimately didn't pan out, and then Muffy and I both ran off to Afghanistan.
We realise now that the type of work we did in Kabul – mentoring local talent in how to write and produce their own stories for television – is the space we want to continue working in. And since returning to Australia, we have had the great fortune of partnering with ABC International on developing a television drama serial for Papua New Guinea.
There has never been a locally produced drama serial in PNG so in many ways, this project will be even more challenging than the work we undertook in Afghanistan.
We still have considerable ground to cover before we are able to go into production but we're excited by the prospect of producing a show that will be primarily entertaining while also addressing important social issues such as HIV, domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse.
Interview by Brooke Hunter