In Afghanistan, a Feel-Good 'Star' Search
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 17, 2009
With Afghanistan facing a national election in August, "Afghan Star" could not be better timed. This absorbing, enlightening documentary is nominally about an "American Idol"-like television talent contest in Kabul. But in its vivid, suspenseful depiction of a high-stakes competition for prize money and the honor of being named Afghanistan's top singer, "Afghan Star" goes much deeper, eloquently conveying the tensions, small victories and shattering setbacks of a fragile democracy struggling to regain a once-flourishing culture.
This is a particularly useful image for American audiences, who have come to see Afghanistan as enemy territory, a harsh, un-pretty place that serves primarily as a redoubt for the Taliban and al-Qaeda. With "Afghan Star," filmmaker Havana Marking portrays a country as rich and diverse in its terrain as in the tribes it comprises. What's more, she reminds viewers that, just 30 years ago, Kabul was a cosmopolitan, even chic city bursting with energy and intellectual ferment. The implicit, heartening message that underlies much of "Afghan Star" is that what was lost might, eventually, be found.
The film follows a season in the life of the television show "Afghan Star," which since 2005 has been as big a national hit as its American counterpart. As the movie opens, the competition has narrowed to four contestants: Rafi, Hameed, Lima and Setara, two men and two women, all from different tribes and cities. As the pool of contestants is whittled down and the audience votes (by mobile phone, just as in the United States), it becomes clear that the stakes of "Afghan Star" are higher than just the $5,000 prize. As the candidates and their proxies campaign, with the more rabid among the fans buying thousands of dollars worth of SIM cards to vote, it becomes clear that the real outcome of "Afghan Star" is nothing less than the future of Afghan national identity.
Will voters hew to tribal allegiances or cross sectarian lines? Will Hameed's Hazara heritage doom him to lose to the Pashtun Lima, or will the Taliban's history of virulent sexism still rule the day? It wasn't that long ago that music, dancing and watching television were illegal in Afghanistan, after all. (In one enlightening side trip, Marking visits the shop of a man who ran a healthy bootleg TV-repair business during Taliban rule.)
As "Afghan Star" follows the contestants around the country, visiting mosques and marketplaces, the religious leadership begins to take notice and security tightens around the singers. Lima, who takes music lessons in Kandahar, must still hide that fact in that Taliban-dominated region; when Setara dares to dance and uncover her hair on "Afghan Star," she is roundly condemned and subjected to death threats.
Marking has found attractive, charismatic subjects to propel "Afghan Star" to its appropriately nail-biting conclusion. But even more memorable are the snippets of Afghan life she gathers to create a lively, textured depiction of a beautiful if confounding country.
As appalling as it is to hear men on the street hatefully call Setara a "loose woman" and call for her murder, there's something heartening in seeing the producers of "Afghan Star" forge ahead despite the mullahs' disapproval, and in witnessing the final vote.
It might turn out that your favorite singer wins, it might not. The important thing is that they survive to sing another day. That's entertainment. And that's what democracy looks like.
Contains nothing objectionable.