(2008)4Mark DemingAmerica's place in the world of manufacturing and finance may be a pale shadow of its former self, but there's one area where the United States still rules -- popular culture. Folks all over the globe still love our movies, music, television, and fashion, and even in places where American values and politics may be considered suspect, they're watching and listening to us, though the cultural signifiers frequently mean something different in other lands. Anyone who doubts this need only watch Havana Marking's fascinating new documentary Afghan Star for proof; the Anglo-American talent show phenomenon American Idol has spawned a copycat series in Afghanistan, but while the producers have carefully followed the U.S. model, it's the differences that tell a truly remarkable story.
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, a nation that had already been battered by years of war was suddenly moved back in time, as the new leadership banned television and music, declaring both were sacrilegious under Islamic law. There was resistance to these new laws, but it was quiet, and even with the Taliban out of power -- a development applauded by everyone who speaks in this film -- Afghanistan remains very much an Islamic state, with conservative voices dominating politics and public discourse. With greater freedom has come people willing to push boundaries, however gently, and now that television is once again legal in Afghanistan, a handful of independent television outlets have sprung up. One such outfit, Tolo TV, has scored one the nation's biggest hits with a series called Afghan Star. Daoud Sediqi, the show's director and host, ran an underground television repair shop during the days of the Taliban, and now he's bringing Afghan-style pop music to the airwaves, as well as a taste of democracy -- like American Idol, Afghan Star allows viewers at home to vote for their favorite performers via text messaging.
In this film, director Marking follows four contestants who make it from open auditions (which appear to include at least one Afghan answer to William Hung) into the ranks for the contest's ten finalists. Nineteen-year-old Rafi Naabzada from Mazar-e-Sharif is handsome, charming, and well-mannered, explaining that he wants to represent a hopeful future where music has replaced war in Afghan culture. Hailing from the Hazara regions, Hameed Sakhizada, 20, has a slightly more ambitious agenda -- he's a classically trained musician who also performs popular music and wants to go into politics someday (he declares "if the people want pop, I have to give them pop," suggesting he already has a campaigner's instincts). Lima Sahar is one of the few women in the competition; 25 years old, she still lives with her mother in Kandahar, where Islamic extremists remain in power and she must take lessons with her vocal coach in secret. And Setara Hussainzada, a 22-year-old from Herat, represents how far Afghanistan has come since the Taliban fell, and how far it has yet to go. Setara's music and personal style are clearly informed by the West, she obviously enjoys a visit to the beauty salon and posing for the camera, she has the closest thing to a diva moment in the film (after a poorly received performance, she's briefly and vocally cross with a cameraman who insists on filming her as she cries), and when she's asked if she's ever kissed a man on the lips, she coyly answers that she doesn't have a husband to kiss her, then speaks with a bit more candor about how women are motivated by love, but some men are more interested in a woman's body -- a common statement elsewhere, but bold in this context.
Two constants in Afghan Star are poverty and the scars of war; except for mosques, it's rare to see a public building that doesn't show some sign of bombing or bullets, and even as the contestants dress up for the camera, it's clear that most have one good suit that they have to wear over and over (the contest's grand prize is five thousand dollars -- not so much here, a fortune in Kabul) while many fans are dressed in little better than rags. In a land where so much seems grim, it's not hard to understand why so many get caught up in the excitement of the competition, as families set up makeshift antennas to pull in Tolo TV for the Friday-night broadcast, contestants are mobbed by fans in the street (one woman dressed in a head-to-toe burka pulls out her cell phone to snap a picture of Rafi as he stops at a mosque), superfans print and paste up posters promoting their favorite contestants, and some folks even buy thousands of airtime cards so they can hand them out as an inducement to vote often for their favored singers. (One man even tries to sell his car so he can buy more text minutes to support Hameed.) It's said a third of Afghanistan's population watched Afghan Star's grand finale, but even though it's clear everyone loves a good song in Afghanistan just as anywhere else, the very different stakes of the game are revealed when Setara dares to remove her head scarf and dance a bit during a performance. Some observers are literally open-mouthed in shock, and it isn't long before an angry man on the street calls for her death. Muslim clerics bitterly denounce Setara and Afghan Star, and a producer for the show compares her to Shakira and Jennifer Lopez (she's nothing short of demure compared to either of those performers). And while Lima strives to be the image of propriety on camera, she soon requires police protection just for the simple act of singing on television. On the other hand, Hameed is able to sing a number about falling in love with a Hindu girl with no apparent reprisals.
During the movie, director Marking periodically visits an Afghan family who declare they are Afghan Star's "biggest fans," and at once point the mother and father talk about meeting in college. They show snapshots of themselves in the 1980s, decked out in funky, hilariously outdated threads, and though the scene is funny, it also carries a wistful sadness; once upon a time, Afghanistan was a land where people had the freedom to dress, act, and learn as they pleased, and it's obvious that's no longer the case in 2007, where Setara becomes a public scandal even in Kabul, the nation's most liberal city. The film Afghan Star is one of the most entertaining documentaries of recent memory; Phil Stebbing's camerawork perfectly captures the rough-hewn beauty of Afghanistan, Marking and editor Ash Jenkins have given the material a breezy pace and work up an impressive degree of suspense in the final reel, and the film's principal characters are engaging and often fascinating personalities. But Afghan Star is about much more than a televised talent show; it's a crash course in just how much separates American and Afghan culture despite our common enthusiasms, and it's a thought-provoking meditation on just what freedom means, both in theory and practice.
When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, among their many edicts was banning popular music, considering it a corrupting and sacrilegious influence. Though Taliban was swept from power in 2001, Islamic militants still regard music as sinful and have targeted Afghan musicians in assassination plots. Into this repressive culture comes a television show that has taken Afghanistan by storm -- Afghan Star, a talent search modeled after American Idol in which aspiring singers perform for the viewing audience and either advance in the ranks or are dropped from the competition based on votes cast by telephone. In a nation where both free democracy and pop music are both novel and risky concepts, Afghan Star's popularity is a bona fide phenomenon, and filmmaker Havana Marking explores both the competition and its effect on Afghan society in the documentary Afghan Star. Marking examines the show's audience -- it's estimated that a third of the nation watches it regularly -- as well as several top contestants, including would-be teen-pop sensation Rafi; Hammeed, a singer who is seen as a champion and role model by fellow members of the Hazara people; Lima, who was born and raised in a community of Islamic fundamentalists and must hide her identity for the safety of her family; and Setara, an attractive woman who defies convention by wearing American-style clothes and makeup, moving to the music on-stage, and even abandoning her head scarf during a performance, making her a hero to youngsters and a pariah to their parents (as well as Islamic conservatives). Afghan Star was an official selection at the 2008 Sheffield International Documentary Festival.