I was always joyful during my songs.
— Setara Hussainzada
“My problem was, I couldn’t go out. I felt like a bird in a cage. I wasn’t free. “I felt there was no point in living,” explains Setara Hussainzada. She’s describing her life in Kabul, Afghanistan since she was voted off Afghan Star, a talent show modeled on American Idol. Now, she says, she’s changed her habits. “I can’t go out without being armed,” she says, then picks up a gun off the floor in front of her. Just seconds before, the camera passed over this gun; in her hand, it’s suddenly the center of all attention. Off-screen, a film crew member asks, “You’re not going to shoot us, are you?” She shows everyone that the gun isn’t loaded, then points it briefly at Obaid, identified as the crew’s bodyguard. Everyone laughs again as she exclaims, “Hands up!”
The moment is striking — both entertaining and odd — in Silencing the Song: An Afghan Fallen Star, Havana Marking’s follow-up to her 2009 documentary, Afghan Star. Premiering on HBO2 on 26 January, the new film follows Setara’s experience since her last performance on the TV show, in which she memorably danced and removed her headscarf, led to condemnation by religious leaders and death threats. Now she’s pregnant, and moved from her hometown of Herat to Kabul, where she lives with her new husband, Yama. He appears on screen with his face blurred (“for security reasons,” a title explains), but speaks as they eat dinner: “I told her leave the singing,” he says, “Because you can’t be a singer in Kabul.”
The camera cuts to Setara’s face, concerned and, for the moment, silent. More often in Silencing the Song, Setara is outspoken and confident, admirably willing to question sanctions and expectations that she will, in fact, be still. “Any artist who lives in Afghanistan and gets to some sort of popularity, especially females, they face a lot of problems from the people, especially the religious people.” The first film showed the Taliban’s efforts to suppress Setara, from public denouncements to opinions offered by men on the street. In the new documentary, Setara speaks with fellow shoppers at a mall (“It’s not safe for me to go shopping in the streets, so I have to come here,” she says, smiling as she handles some brightly colored Western-style toys). A woman asks whom she’s married, and Setara reveals, “Even though my husband is not a singer, he loves music.”
We can only hope this is true. The film doesn’t detail Setara and Yama’s relationship: for the most part, they appear in separate frames, as he works long hours and they spend little time together. At one point, she worries that he’s not arrived home in time to take her to a doctor’s appointment. When the film crew drives her, she sits in the back seat of the van, singing as she looks out the window. Shots of the street reveal beggars and old trucks, a one-legged man on crutches and skinny children. Such images of Setara’s surroundings correspond to her own difficulties. It’s as if her frustration is made visible in such bleak scenes, individuals struggling to survive, isolated and focused only on the next step.
Following the appointment, a film crew member walks with Setara back to the van, carrying a fluids bag, which the doctor has said will help with her baby’s dehydration. “Everyone must think I’m a special ill person,” she smiles, “That’s why I’m being filmed.” In this and other scenes, it’s clear that despite her frustrations, Setara remains the irrepressible spirit she appeared in the first film. When the police arrive at her door, apparently informed by a neighbor that she has a film crew with her, the camera observes her argument with the head officer, unfocused and low-angled, so the officers won’t see it. When Setara insists what she’s doing is not illegal (“It’s not a whorehouse!”), the policeman turns her complaint around: “We’re here to protect you,” he lies. Setara, her belly wide and her robe bright pink, laughs as she finally convinces the police to leave. Her neighbors, she says, “They drive me mad.”
The film demonstrates how such tensions define Setara’s life. Buoyed by her own resilience, she repeatedly faces down attempts to make her conform, to silence her. As she thinks about her new life with the baby, her mother arrives from Herat to help out. The women ride together in the crew’s van, their faces similarly strong and set. Setara’s mother remembers how different life was “in the old times,” when her marriage to a cousin was arranged. “It’s better now,” she says.
Certainly, some things are better. Setara has a phone, she rides to the clinic and the hospital in a van, she has a television set on which to see music videos made in other countries or Afghan Star. But Silencing the Song also shows how some other things remain difficult, how Setara’s “passion for singing” is at once a source of strength and trouble.