Title: Afghan Star
Director: Havana Marking
Film reviewed by: Katy Jones
I loved this film. It took me a little while to get into it. It’s a little rough – it’s a film about Afghanistan. It’s a world I’ve never been to, and like any culture shock, it takes a little bit of time to get a sense of where you are and what you are trying to navigate.
Television has come back to Afghanistan after being outlawed during the years of Taliban rule. One of the most popular programs on the television is Tolo TV’s Afghan Star. The set up is the same as American Idol. Thousands audition across the country wearing contestant numbers and singing to a panel of judges who alternatively ridicule and praise until they whittle out a small group of finalists. These finalists move on to the main broadcast and sing in a weekly program. After they perform, the audience sends votes for their favorite via text messages. The next week the person with the fewest votes is removed from the program. And this poor unlucky soul, after being told that their dreams are crushed, gets to sing one final song to the audience and exit on a “high note” so to speak.
The four finalists that we follow are from different backgrounds and different regions in Afghanistan. Rafi, an adorable 19 year old with Jonas brother appeal is from nearby Mazer e Sharif, a community dominated by the Tajiks of Iranian descent. Hameed is a twenty-five year old classically trained musician from the Hazara minority, a people believed to be related to the Mongolians.
Rafi is clearly the heartthrob while Hameed is clearly the better musician. Both become symbols for their people to pin their hopes. And they are friends (at least on screen). The sight of these two singing together, joyfully embracing after they are passed to the next round resonates strongly with a people that are tired of fighting and want to see Afghanistan as a unified country.
There are two (!) female contestants. There is the modest and Madonna-esque (Rembrant style Madonna) Lema who is praised for maintaining her feminine modesty. She quietly, stoically can’t help herself from singing and is matter of fact of the danger she knows she is facing in being a woman on the screen. She doesn’t need to be a star, but she does need to sing.
And then there’s Setara. Ah, Setara, an irrepressible Madonna-esque (pop star style Madonna) diva who can’t help but dance when she’s singing. Eventually, the audience turns against her because she bounced from side to side in an immodest fashion while singing. She doesn’t cry at the announcement that she is kicked off, but during her final song – oh, dear. Her face sets, her thoughts broadcast, “Okay, you didn’t like that – see how you like this!” And she belts out a song as she sashays around the whole stage, letting her head-scarf slip. Oh, Setara. Noooooooo!!!! She leaves the program laughing, and dodging death threats.
But my favorite character is Daoud Sediqi, the producer/host who works behind the scenes. “Why do I care who wins personally? These people are characters for me to make a better world with.” For him, having these ethnic groups share the same stage and vote for the same stars is a unifying force for the Afghan people. “Why talk about the Taliban?” he asks, “They are not important.” They are not a part of this television world he is creating. In his world, ethnic diversity shares one stage and sings together and supports each other. Women are seen, television is broadcast, and music is heard. Interestingly, this film was shot in 2006, and Mr. Sediqi today is no longer a part of Afghan Star. Earlier this year, he was sent to watch this documentary in the U.S., and he never returned to Afghanistan.
Why do I like this show? Amazing characters? Yes. The producer manipulating the entire country. Yes. But also there’s this – my belief in democracy has been shaken in recent years, petty fighting, caring more about the pretense of caring than actually caring, the exhaustion of watching Sarah Palin continue to get press – but you know, you’re giving it back to me, Afghan Star. Suddenly democracy does seem like a process that can bring people together as much as tear them apart. Suddenly, in an entertainment-driven TV show, I am reminded why freedom of the press is important. Thumbs up.
4 out of 5 cheers