TV preview of 'Afghan Star'

After decades of war and Taliban rule, pop culture slowly returns to Afghanistan. Premiering March 18, HBO's new documentary follows four finalists competing in one of the country's most popular TV programs, the music competition show "Afghan Star." For viewers, who get to vote for their favorite performer, it's their first experience with the democratic process.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Taliban cruelly dialed Afghanistan's clock back to the Middle Ages, so it now falls to the producers and performers of "Afghan Star," the country's version of "American Idol," to bring pop culture forward to at least a David Cassidy level of cool.

Not surprisingly, the show has been hugely successful there, same as versions of the singing competition that air all over the globe. Perhaps more meaningfully, the flurry of cellphone text votes cast by viewers sent the thrills of democracy through a culture that has sorely lacked it.

Eleven million Afghans -- one third of the country -- reportedly watched the season of "Afghan Star" that is intimately chronicled in director Havana Marking's documentary film of the same name. (It won high praise at last year's Sundance Film Festival and airs Thursday night on HBO.) It's a depressing yet fascinating story of Afghanistan's betwixt-between nature, in which the people so clearly yearn to reach out and touch the glow of showbiz (all television was banned until 2004), while the theocratic and tribal systems that bind them work against the show's populist spark.

At first, Marking's film is an amusing voyage into a land of Western mimicry, almost "Borat"-like, where the contrasts of staging an "American Idol"-style event amid so much strife and squalor borders on the absurd. Like its counterparts in other countries, the show travels the land and auditions contestants who are young and very old and almost always male -- at one stop, 2,000 men audition and only three women do -- and sing horribly for disapproving judges.

Daoud Sediqi is "Afghan Star's" producer and host, its Ryan Seacrest and Simon Cowell rolled into one. He takes the documentary crew to the clandestine shop where he survived the Taliban years repairing black market televisions. Now he is committed to delivering to his countrymen a pop-idol show they can believe in.

Marking and company gained the sort of access all journalists crave, profiling and following "Afghan Star's" finalists during the buildup to the season's remaining episodes. It comes down to dreamy, shag-haired Rafi and suave Hameed, who appear to be the front-runners, while two very brave women finalists, Lema and Setara, must overcome their culture's tentative acceptance of women appearing on TV at all.

Everything that seems bizarre about "Afghan Star" seems less so when you think about it. Their dumb songs ("Come my love, slowly on the roof/I have a tattoo on my chin/It is late afternoon . . .") are certainly no dumber than ours ("I'm talking about everybody getting crunk, crunk/Boys trying to touch my junk, junk . . ."). And when their religious leaders freak out over a contestant showing her hair, well, don't we get just as harsh when Idols show up in old Internet porn?

In one song the outspoken Setara decides to remove her head scarf and dance in a funky manner, eliciting the scorn of viewers and the other contestants. Here, Marking's film becomes something more moving and informative than mere social study; it tells us more about Afghanistan and its people in a way that a dozen "Frontline" and "60 Minutes" episodes cannot quite achieve. Setara's forbidden dance naturally incurs the wrath of the Islamic religious council, which publicly lambastes the show and all who would dare watch it.

Which of course matters not a whit to the millions, from Kabul to the remotest mountaintops and sheep pastures, who crank up their generators and crowd around TV sets to watch and then vote with their phones. Liberté, egalité, and best of all, "Idol"-atré.

Afghan Star

(90 minutes) airs at 9 p.m. Thursday on HBO.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company