“A gripping thriller, as well as a film you can watch on so many different levels - from human to political to educational,” says UK film-maker Havana Marking of her debut feature documentary Afghan Star, screening in the world documentary section at Sundance. It is not a typical description of a documentary about a reality TV talent show - except when the show in question is Afghanistan’s equivalent of Pop Idol, and the contestants were risking their lives to take part.

“Music was banned under the Taliban regime (which ended in 2001), and the Taliban is still an incredibly strong force in people’s psyches,” explains Marking, who spent three months at the beginning of 2008 following the progress of Afghan Star through the eyes of four contestants.

Three of the 2,000 applicants were women, and in a radical move for Afghanistan the show declared all genders, ethnic groups and age sectors equal. “As a result, the show was incredibly controversial, with the Islamic council trying to close down the television company (Tolo TV) and the Taliban threatening to blow up mobile-phone receivers to stop people voting,” says Marking. “But in the end, a third of the country voted in the final - for many young people this was their first experience of democracy.”

Marking, who has spent 10 years in television production and whose work includes the 2007 Channel 4 short documentary The Crippendales, was determined to make Afghan Star as a theatrical feature. “It is epic in its concept, just as Afghanistan itself is epic, and it deserved more than just a small film,” she says.

Marking persuaded Channel 4’s Britdoc Foundation to provide enough funding to make an initial trailer. This led to the film being commissioned by More 4’s True Stories strand, with an advance from Channel 4 Distribution. A co-production between Afghanistan’s Kaboora Production and Marking’s UK-based Roast Beef Productions, the film was completed for a budget of $174,000 (£120,000).

Unsurprisingly, filming was a challenge. “Because of the threat of kidnap to the contestants, we couldn’t tell anyone where we would be filming,” Marking recalls. “We didn’t have call sheets because there were no printers, and there was only three hours of electricity a day so lighting was difficult. This gives a spontaneity to the film - it may be a little rough in parts, but it is real.”

The film made its world premiere at Sheffield’s Doc/Fest in the UK in November, and the same month was nominated for the First Appearance award at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam (Idfa). C4i distribution is handling rights to the film, which is also being screened in London as part of the Human Rights Watch International Festival in March. “I want people to see the film as it explains the issues in Afghanistan in a really accessible way,” says Marking.

After Sundance, Marking plans to stay in the US to look for characters for her next project, a documentary about rodeo. She says she has no plans to make the switch to drama: “Why would I use actors when I can tell a story using real people’”