Afghan Star

The country was like a house that no one was living in. It felt as though the whole city was abandoned. It was such a terrible time. Luckily that time has passed and God willing, today, times are brighter.

— Rafi Naabzada

“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 terrific documentary Afghan Star follows Rafi and three other contenders for the $5,000 prize as they prepare for the season’s final performances. The winner of Directing and Audience Awards at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival is premiering on HBO 18 March. The documentary explores the TV show’s range of effects on singers, producers, and thrilled fans, including those who reject the contest as one more sign of a debasing Western influence. At the same time, it poses significant questions regarding the complex interconnections between self-expression and national pride, individual art and commercial exploitation; if these are the same questions that surround American Idol and other similar shows, here the stakes can be high, as contestants can be subject not only to votes off, but also to death threats.

The admirers of the TV show Afghan Star are legion (the first season’s finale garnered 11 million viewers). They’re also easy to spot. 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. Like so many pop stars before him, Hameed sings of forbidden love (“My love is a Hindu but I am a Muslim, / Black magic man make a spell for me”) while girls swoon. “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. She believes her success thus far fits within religious tenets: “If there was no God,” she says, if God isn’t with you, you can’t do anything.” 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.

RATING 8 / 10