Book titles tend to be enigmatic.
Not so Making Soapies In Kabul, Trudi-Ann Tierney’s memoir about the three and a half years she spent doing just that.
In April 2009, during a hiatus in her career as an Australian television producer, Tierney headed for Afghanistan.
“It makes me sound crazy, or at the very least reckless,” muses the 48-year-old, now back in Australia.
She had a “come to Jesus moment” when she heard a friend talking about his job in Afghan TV. For 10 years under the Taliban, TV was banned in Afghanistan, but the Mohseni family’s Moby Media Group were by then dragging it back to life.
“His job was to basically try and raise production levels across the TV channels they had and to try and train up largely unskilled workforce,” she recalls.
“I thought, `That’s exactly what I want to do as well’.”
Tierney’s initial job – the one that secured her Afghan work permit – was to manage a bar in Kabul. That turned out to be “quite freaky”, she says.
“If insurgents attack you you’ve got to go down to the safe room and hide there. If the police raid you, you’ve got to go down to the safe room and hide there. If the police arrest you when you’re doing a grog run you’ll go to jail.” she recalls.
“I did think, ‘Ooh, what have you done?'”
Before long, she switched to TV, working for Moby, Afghanistan’s biggest broadcaster.
Her first gig was an action series, Salam, but as Moby’s head of drama Tierney also worked on other productions including a weekly soap, Secrets Of This House, and a mockumentary series, The Ministry, which sent up Afghan bureaucracy.
Tierney dressed modestly – “headscarf, trousers, long-sleeved tops” – partly because doing so made life easier, but mainly “out of respect for the Afghans that I worked with”.
Being in her 40s made Tierney “a desperate old banger” by Afghan standards: most of her crews were in their early 20s.
There were many challenges. Budgets were low, and many of the cast and crew were learning about TV production on the job. Actresses were hard to come by (many Afghans see the profession as akin to prostitution), and bombs would occasionally disrupt filming.
Yet Tierney says she is proud of her Afghan productions, and the way her crews came to master the medium.
“A few of those shows were definitely western-standard, the production values we managed to get in the end.”
In some ways, she says, working in Afghan TV was liberating after the bureaucracy of permits, council approvals and labour laws involved in Australian TV production.
“We didn’t have any of that,” says Tierney. “We didn’t have any OH&S practices that we had to observe. Cameramen would hang off the side of cars or of the side of buildings to get the best shots.”
There was also “the freedom to fail”. Having been deprived of TV for a decade, Afghan audience were forgiving: “If there was a little boom mike in shot, it wasn’t the end of the world.”
Tierney returned to Australia 16 months ago, ready for new challenges.
“By the time I left there after three and a half years these young people were rocking along and able to do it by themselves, and that gave me an immense feeling of satisfaction about my time there.”
These days she and her business partner, Muffy Potter, are planning to do a drama serial for Papua New Guinea.
Tierney has always had a freewheeling attitude to her career. Inspired to be a lawyer after watching the film Witness For The Prosecution as a 12-year-old in suburban Sydney, she later abandoned her legal career to study acting (she appeared in various TV dramas). She has also run a theatre company and done stand-up comedy.
“I’ve been all over the place,” she says, “and in between is the waitressing, the cleaning, all those little jobs that pay the rent…
“I’m a person who, if I’m not enjoying something or it’s not working for me, rather than sitting tight and waiting for the next thing to come along, I’ll just move. Move anywhere.
“And while I’m working in the milk bar I’ll figure out what my next step is.”
She counts herself lucky to be “in a position where I can be spontaneous”.
“I don’t have children, I’m not married. So I’m able to up stumps and run off and do whatever I want to do.
“It’s not a really secure lifestyle and maybe when I’m 65 I’ll be regretting all these hijinks, but at the moment it’s really working for me.
“Whenever I take a leap I tend to land on my feet.”
* Making Soapies In Kabul, by Trudi-Ann Tierney, is published by Allen & Unwin, rrp $29.99