Afghan Star

“Music could perhaps be called the most truly human form of dialogue we are capable of. Though people may differ in the color of their skin, the language they speak, their customs and ways, or the material culture which surrounds them, the power of music makes it possible for them to instantly communicate and respond to each other’s innermost feelings.” — Daisaku Ikeda, Buddhist Philosopher

Director Havana Marking’s first feature documentary, Afghan Star, gets its name from Afghanistan’s first televised talent show. Much like Britain’s Pop Idol, and its spin-off American Idol, Afghan Star takes its audience from auditions to performances and eliminations until, at last, there is a final winner. Through examination of this popular program, Marking provides a window into the lives of the Afghan people, particularly the youth.

Afghan Star is not a sentimental film, but it will tug at your heartstrings right from the start. In the opening scene, a blind Afghan boy sings with lyrics, feeling, and emotion that belie his young age. “When I listen to music, I feel really happy”, the boy says, “If there was no music, humans would be sad”. As the child points out, music is essential to the soul of humankind. In Afghanistan, however, music remains controversial.

For the last 30 years in Afghanistan, music was considered disrespectful by the Muhajideen and sacrilegious by the Taliban. From 1996 until 2004, it was a crime to dance or listen to music. Watching television was also banned. In 2005, after restrictions on music and television were lifted, Tolo TV began broadcasting Afghan Star, and audiences were hooked.

While Afghan Star informs, it is not didactic Marking and cameraman Phil Stebbing also manage to reveal something of the spirit of the Afghan people. In one scene, for example, as one of Afghan Star’s male contestants is about to enter a mosque, women clad in burkas turn back in recognition to take a second look. One even stops to take a picture of the star with her mobile phone.

In another segment, the show’s producer, Habib Amiri, speaks with earnest appreciation for the singular book from which he learns how to direct television programs. When, during that same interview, a disturbance occurs that turns out to be an earthquake, Amiri, remarks with an amiable laugh, “In Afghanistan if we don’t have a war, we have [an] earthquake”.

Marking paints a portrait of a people who, though weary of civil war, foreign invasion, natural disasters, and Taliban rule, remain hopeful. That hope is embodied in Afghan Star. For many of Afghanistan’s young people, voting for their favorite singer by cell phone represents their first encounter with “democracy”.

In terms of women’s roles, the present season is considered a great success for having a total of three women among its 2,000 contestants. For the show’s Head of Production, Massoud Sanja, Afghan Star also signals the people’s desire for national unity, not only in that it brings together divisive ethnic groups, but also because audiences are voting across ethnic lines.

The documentary focuses on four contestants, two men and two women. Unlike their counterparts in Western talent shows, there is far more at stake for Afghan Star contestants than merely competing for prize money, fame, and a record deal. Though there are many fans of Afghan Star—one-third of the country tuned in to watch the final—there are still fundamentalists who believe that music should be banned. Thus, being part of the show is risky.

Of the four contestants featured, it is the two women who clearly are most at risk. One of the women, Lema Sahar, lives with her family in Kandahar. Kandahar is far less liberal than the city of Kabul, where Afghan Star is produced. She and her family are in danger because of her participation in the show. Lema takes her music lessons in secret, and at night she hides her computer and songbooks. If these items are found, Lema tells us, she will be killed.

The other woman is Setera Hussainzada from Herat city. After learning she has been eliminated from the contest, Setera performs her final song. During her performance, in what surely must be one of television’s most honest “reality” moments, Setera dances “wildly” and uncovers her hair. By Western standards, Setera’s dance is quite innocent, but her fellow contestants are shocked and the public strongly disapproves. An older man interviewed on the street claims he could not watch it, while a younger man says that Setera deserves to be killed.

For those of us fortunate enough to live in a society where music can be taken for granted, Afghan Star makes American Idol and Pop Idol seem simultaneously trivial and profound.

Special features on this DVD include an interview with director Havana Marking. Marking tells of the inspiration behind the documentary, and provides information, such as what it was like to film in Afghanistan, and how the four subject contestants were chosen. When asked if attitudes have changed, Marking answers that since the documentary, 15 more women have come forth to participate in subsequent seasons of Afghan Star.

As for Setera, her life is still in danger. Marking reveals that she is working on a new documentary that will tell what has happened to Setera since her appearance on Afghan Star.

RATING 8 / 10