One of those classic ‘fish out of water tales’ that’s inherently funny, Trudi-Ann Tierney’s book Making Soapies in Kabul shines a light on a side of Afghanistan that rarely makes the news.
“Afghans are the most hospitable people in the world. They took the time to make me feel included and a part of their country,” says Trudi, who spent three-and-a-half years making TV dramas there.
“I met the most amazing people in Afghanistan. Their humour is very self-deprecating — very Australian!”
Finding herself in a state of flux after nearly eight years at Foxtel and a stint writing for Home and Away, Trudi was drawn to Afghanistan when a friend moved there to head up production at Moby Media.
“He was telling me all about it and I was intrigued, so I asked if he could get me a gig there,” Trudi says.
“Within a matter of months he rang me up and said, ‘Listen, I can’t actually get you a gig at the TV station I’m working at but if we can get you over here doing something else then I can probably slide you across’. About a month later he called to say: ‘There’s an Australian woman I work with here who also runs a bar. She’s going on leave and needs someone to manage the bar, do you want to come over?’”
Trudi wasted no time booking a flight to Afghanistan and soon found herself both looking after the bar and working in TV.
“We were using TV to communicate important social and health messaging to the Afghan people,” she says.
“We did a lot of subject matter about women’s rights as well as a show that touched on the dangers of narcotics because heroin addiction is big over there.
“When particular topics became pertinent, we just weaved them into our storyline.”
For example, at one stage there was a big push for polio vaccination in Afghanistan but there was great resistance to it. The Taliban said it was an abomination and were trying to get it banned while some conservative religious elders were preaching that it was a form of espionage by the west.
“So in our soap opera Secrets of This House we had one of the elders, a popular character in the show, talking about how important polio vaccination was. We also tackled government corruption and the importance of democratic elections.”
When asked if she feared for her own safety while working in a war zone, Trudi says her concerns paled in significance compared to the risks her cast and crew were taking.
“The first TV show I did we had to import all our actresses from Pakistan because we couldn’t find enough Afghan women to be in it,” she says.
“There were women I worked with who got death threats for being on television and others who were disowned by their families. The storylines we had for our female actresses were really powerful.
“We were all dedicated to telling stories that were impactful and thought-provoking enough to affect change in an audience.”
One of the first towns Trudi went to make a TV drama, Jalalabad (about three hours from Kabul), is now Taliban country.
“There’s no way I could go there now,” she says. “The Taliban have taken control of it because it’s quite close to the Pakistan border but when I was there in 2009 there were times when I was the only white person (and female) in an all-Afghan crew.
“I was such a stand-out target for kidnapping if anyone felt like kidnapping a westerner, but at the time we were just so invested in getting the show done.”
Trudi was also passionate about working with local crews and showing them best practices and international standards in television and radio production.
“Teaching them writing, producing and post-production was an absolute joy,” Trudi says. “The goal was to empower these young people to tell their own stories.”
Trudi’s most recent production, an eight-part drama series called In Love and Ashes, has just broadcast its first season in Nigeria.
“It was an amazing experience and the first time I’d been to Africa,” Trudi says. “The show’s about getting the south invested in what’s happening in the north in terms of the terrorist group Boko Haram and the absolute devastation they’re wreaking. It’s just finished broadcasting in Nigeria to a fantastic response.
“One of the country’s most-loved singers (imagine a younger version of John Farnham) sang the theme song to the show and made a film clip that was huge on social media. We’re hoping to do a second season.”
In the meantime, Trudi is back in Australia recovering from viral meningitis.
“When I came back from Nigeria I got very sick so my business partner with Put It Out There Pictures, Muffy Potter, and I decided we’d sit out the rest of this year,” Trudi says. “But while we were sitting it out we’ve developed a slate of other projects that could work in Australia…”
With a new relationship flourishing for Trudi in Australia, there’s a lot of good will around her staying put for a while.
“I just haven’t had time to have a relationship before,” Trudi says. “It will be interesting to see what opportunities develop here.”