Reviews

Afghan Star

Afghan Star explores this American Idol-like show's effects on singers, producers, and thrilled fans -- not to mention those who reject it as one more sign of debasing Western influence.


Afghan Star

US Release: 2009-06-26 (Limited release)
UK Release: 2009-03-27 (General release)
Director: Havana Marking
Cast: Daoud Sediqi, Rafi Naabzada, Lema Sahar, Hameed Sakhizada, Setara Hussainzada
Studio: Zeitgeist Films
Year: 2009
Website
Trailer

"I want to be famous and happy," says Rafi Naabzada. "And I can sing for my people. Our people are war torn." Indeed. Rafi's audience lives primarily in Afghanistan, which has endured foreign invasions, civil wars, and most recently, the repressive violence of the Taliban, for three decades. On the American Idol-like TV show Afghan Star, Rafi and his fellow competitors provide welcome distractions from diurnal hardships and threats. Viewers gather in shops and living rooms to share in the excitement each week, as contestants perform a range of pop songs under pulsing bright lights.

Havana Marking's Afghan Star follows Rafi and three other contenders for the $5,000 prize as they prepare for the season's final performances. A favorite film at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival, the documentary opens 26 June at New York's Cinema Village, exploring the show's effects on singers, producers, and thrilled fans -- not to mention those who reject the contest as one more sign of debasing Western influence.

The admirers are easy to spot (and legion: the first season's finale garnered 11 million viewers). On the street, young men approach Hameed Sakhizada to ask for autographs and girls in burqas huddle together and point at him. The Khan Family, designated "Number One Fans of Afghan Star," happily invite cameras inside their home as they prepare for each Friday's airing, making sure their rag-tag generator and jerry-rigged antenna are in place. Store windows and markets display posters in favor of one contestant or another, TV repair shops are busy every day, and restaurants are filled with chatter about which singer is the best or who will be buying how many sim cards in order to vote repeatedly for one contestant or another. The camera keeps up a kind of breathless pace during these segments, acting out the exhilaration in swoopy framing and giddily tilted angles.

Presenter and director Daoud Sediqi embodies another sort of enthused. His dedication to the show is premised in a sense of history -- specifically, his place in it. Mixing promotional trailers for the coming show, he looks at a bank of monitors and assembles an appealing array of finalists' close-ups. "They are just characters to me that I can create a better culture with," he says. "Move people from the gun to music." With the show, he says, "We give the feeling of peace."

Sediqi isn't the only participant who feels the political drama, but he's in a position to exploit it. As viewers vote for their favorites, the film notes in a title card, "For many young people, this is the first time they have encountered democracy." It's also an occasion to sort out feelings about tribes and ancient rivalries. As the finalists come from different provinces and backgrounds, they give fans a chance to support someone who is not "one of them." Hameed (who says he prefers "classical music," but "an artist has to follow the people, if people want pop, I have to give them pop") insists that he's attracting a diverse fan base, from many tribes. "I have the character to be a politician," he smiles, "To bring peace and harmony to benefit all the people of Afghanistan." It could be that all this exposure is only a step toward another sort of future for this 20-year-old from Kabul.

In addition to the handsome boys, the movie also follows two women contestants, 22-year-old Setara Hussainzada from Herat City, and 25-year-old Lema Sahar, of Kandahar Province. It's remarkable that girls are competing at all, given the Taliban's exceedingly determined efforts to keep them covered and contained. "Because I am an artist," says Setara as a makeup designer works on her eyeliner. "I believe there is no difference between a man and a woman." While this hopeful observation is undermined by pretty much every turn of events in the documentary, it does suggest that some thinking in Afghanistan is changing. As Lema puts it, "Singing is not a bad thing, but it's not in religion."

It's not always clear that such changing is all good. Western commercial culture brings with it its own restrictions, say, melodramatic narrative conventions, annoying pop songs, and tedious gender role expectations. Setara notes, "A woman living alone in Afghanistan is difficult, I mean 100% difficult. The fact that I'm a singer means I face a lot of problems, so there are lots of things I must ignore until I reach my goal." In the next breath, she's describing her dream date: "I'm an open-minded person so I'm looking for a guy who is also open-minded. He should be medium height, have strong eyebrows that meet in the middle, and I will love him." Ah well.

The movie's most effective drama emerges when Setara performs a dance on the show that appears provocative to some viewers --- and especially non-viewers. "I cannot watch it," says one interviewee, "She should sing by Islamic rule." A fellow contestant looks at her backstage following the performance and shakes his head. "Her life is in danger," he says, "In her last song, she uncovered her hair and she danced a lot. She will pay a big price." As the documentary reveals, Setara does suffer consequences. Her explanation is aptly generic and determinedly pop: "I always act according to my emotions. Music is the language of emotion. I can show my inner feelings through my voice and my actions."

Afghan Star doesn't question the source or parameters of that self-expression. It respects Setara's self-evaluation, presenting her as an emblem of resistance even in her conformity.

8

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less
6

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less
Theatre

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less
10

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less
7

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image